“I shall continue till I die to pay in cash for what I buy”

DOGGEREL BY A SENIOR CITIZEN
~ by W. H. Auden

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off Chaos at arm’s length.

My Eden landscapes and their climes
Are constructs from Edwardian times,
When bathrooms took up lots of space,
And, before eating, one said Grace.

The automobile, the aeroplane,
Are useful gadgets, but profane.
The enginry of which I dream
Is moved by water or by steam.

Reason requires that I approve
The light bulb which I cannot love:
To me more reverence-commanding
A fishtail burner on the landing.

My family ghosts I fought and routed,
Their values, though, I never doubted:
I thought their Protestant Work Ethic
Both practical and sympathetic.

When couples played or sang duets,
It was immoral to have debts:
I shall continue till I die
To pay in cash for what I buy.

The Book of Common Prayer we knew
Was that of 1662:
Though with-it sermons may be well,
Liturgical reforms are hell.

Sex was, of course — it always is —
The most enticing of mysteries,
But news stands did not yet supply
Manichean pornography.

Then conversation was an art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

Nor are those Ph.D’s my kith
Who dig the symbol and the myth:
I count myself a Man of Letters
Who writes, or hopes to, for his Betters.

Dare any call Permissiveness
An educational success?
Saner those classrooms which I sat in,
Compelled to study Greek and Latin.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
If there is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young,
Who will not learn their Mother Tongue.

But love, at least, is not a state
Either en vogue or out of date,
And I’ve true friends, I will allow,
To talk and eat with here and now.

Me alienated? Bosh! It’s just
As a sworn citizen who must
Skirmish with it that I feel
Most at home with what is real.

##

Manichean theology, in the early centuries of Christianity, was a dualistic view of the body as a source of evil and the spirit as a source of good.

A construct is a broad unproven conception, often just a working theory. As much as it appears to be an attempt at synthesizing the data of experience, it is a product of one’s cultural background and its underlying assumptions. It is an artifact of one’s society and one’s time.

The Edwardian Era was a time of unusual prosperity, peace, and leisure at the turn of the century, before the First World War, in Auden’s native England. One of the chief constructs of Edwardian times was that civilization had reached an apex of glittering style via a leisure class of country homes with servants, and it would remain always thus. All of which was shattered by the war. The servants joined the army and were slaughtered in the trenches, and the country estates were unable to prosper amid modern mass-commerce and industry. Now the great country houses are mostly museums for the public’s amusement.

The anti-novel, in the postmodern era of the 1960s and after, dispenses with linear narrative sequence and other novel-writing conventions, instead depicting some of the raw flux of life as is.

The Generation Gap of the 1960s was an opposition between the patriots of the Forties and the anti-war pacifists of the Sixties, their offspring, with all that entailed.

“There is no such thing as the State and no one exists alone”

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
~ by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty Second Street
Uncertain and unafraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives.
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave,
Analyzed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief.
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse.
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream?
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day.
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home.
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish.
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart.
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love,
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come
Repeating their morning vow,
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game.
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man in the street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky.
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone.
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police.
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies.
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages.
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show and affirming flame.

##

September 1, 1939 was the date of Nazi Germany’s assault on Poland at the very beginning of World War II. W. H. Auden here sees Adolf Hitler, growing up in Linz, Austria, as developing in the manner of a psychopath and coming to represent the Authoritarian State. The “low dishonest decade,” the 1930s, was a time of emerging dictatorships under Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, et al., as nations struggled with international economic depression and sought desperate remedies in totalitarian statism.

“Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science”

from UNDER WHICH LYRE
~ by W. H. Auden

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Administration.

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World Affairs,
Nor with complaince
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the choices, choose the odd.
Read The New Yorker, trust in God,
And take short views.

##

An excerpt from W. H. Auden’s long poem, Under Which Lyre, presented as the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard in 1946. See also Arthur Hugh Clough’s The Latest Decalogue.