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W. H. Auden at Oxford University in 1972. (Alamy)

Things Worth Remembering: W. H. Auden’s Poignant Embrace

One stanza of poetry captures the pleasure of holding another person.

Welcome back to our new Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, in which Douglas Murray shares poems and passages he’s memorized and how they’ve brought meaning to his life.

To listen to Douglas recite this week’s work—the first stanza of W. H. Auden’s “Lullaby”—click below.

One of the odd things about poetry is that people head to it in times of crisis or unusually heightened emotion. 

Poetry is not especially useful when describing the state of the traffic heading downtown. It is not required for summing up the pleasures of shopping. But there are moments when only poetry will do—as the most distilled form of communication possible. Consider how people not just read but often try to write poetry upon the death of someone they love. Or when they are falling in love—especially for the first time. 

There seems something important about the fact that even people who don’t know they care for poetry instinctively know it is somewhere they can go to in extremis. Other art forms—music, in particular—may do similar work, but sometimes only poetry will do.

Which brings me to the only other person, apart from Eliot and Shakespeare, who will crop up here more than once over the next year: W. H. Auden.

There was a time when Auden loomed almost as large as Eliot—one of the great Faber poets of the mid-twentieth century. But Auden has come to seem slightly smaller in the rearview mirror, while Eliot has overtaken him. There is a reason, which is that after the starburst of his early success, Auden’s poetry became harder. And not always in a rewarding way. There is nothing wrong with having to work to understand a poem, but the reward has to be worth it. As he grew older, Auden somehow calcified. Not only did the memorable rhyme schemes of his early poems go out the window—it seemed, at times, as though he was trying to be difficult. 

The critic Clive James even wrote a poem titled “What Happened to Auden.

One thing that happened was that he left England for America—just as England looked likely to be attacked by Hitler. Some people in his home country never forgave him for fleeing. 

Still, the only way to judge an artist is by his art, and by that standard, the Auden of the 1930s should be judged very highly indeed. In modern terms, he wrote hit after hit. 

As I Walked Out One Evening” is full of memorable lines, though rereading it recently I realized that I had forgotten two of its greatest stanzas:

‘O plunge your hands in water,

   Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare in the basin

   And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘O look, look in the mirror,

   O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

   Although you cannot bless.

Then there’s Auden’s poem on the death of W. B. Yeats. The rhyme scheme and rhythm are what make them lodge in the memory. Though what really makes this stick is the thing that makes the sticking worth it—the content. Consider this:

Earth, receive an honored guest:

William Yeats is laid to rest.

Let the Irish vessel lie

Emptied of its poetry.

Or the final stanza, the last couplet of which is inscribed on Auden’s memorial stone in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

These are wonderful lines. If Auden had never written anything else, lines like these would have meant he remained known. But if I were to select one poem from Auden’s early work which I enjoy having in my head the most, it is the love poem “Lullaby,” published in 1937.

It is tricky to get the whole thing by heart, but the first stanza can be held onto quite easily, and it is the one most worth treasuring. It is utterly, wholly rhapsodic—about the joy of holding another human being. 

Of course, the worm enters, as it must. Does the arm have to be “faithless”? Do we have to be reminded that the loved one will go to the grave? The answer, of course, is “yes.” Because the moment of unalloyed rapture is dense with meaning—in part, because we know it cannot last. The losing is part of the holding on now. Auden invites us to savor the moment, in the hope that by doing so the moment is not only heightened, but remembered.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.


Douglas will be back in your inbox with another poem next Sunday. His last column was about T. S. Eliot.

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