Horae Canonicae: Sext

by W H Auden

W. H. Auden

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,
you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon
making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,
wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.
How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.
To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines
of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray instead to St. Phocas,
St Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one's patron is,
that one may be worthy of their mystery,
what a prodigious step to have taken.
There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,
to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,
the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.
Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still
wandering through forests without
a consonant to our names,
slaves of Dame Kind, lacking
all notion of a city
and, at this noon, for this death,
there would be no agents.
You need not hear what orders he is giving
to know if someone has authority,
you have only to watch his mouth:
when a besieging general sees
a city wall breached by his troops,
when a bacteriologist
realizes in a flash what was wrong
with his hypothesis when,
from a glance at the jury, the prosecutor
knows the defendant will hang,
their lips and the lines around them
relax, assuming an expression
not of simple pleasure at getting
their own sweet way but of satisfaction
at being right, an incarnation
of Fortitudo, Justicia, Nous.
You may not like them much
(Who does?) but we owe them
basilicas, divas,
dictionaries, pastoral verse,
the courtesies of the city:
without these judicial mouths
(which belong for the most part
to very great scoundrels)
how squalid existence would be,
tethered for life to some hut village,
afraid of the local snake
or the local ford demon
speaking the local patois
of some three hundred words
(think of the family squabbles and the
poison-pens, think of the inbreeding)
at this noon, there would be no authority
to command this death.
Anywhere you like, somewhere
on broad-chested life-giving Earth,
anywhere between her thirstlands
and undrinkable Ocean,
the crowd stands perfectly still,
its eyes (which seem one) and its mouths
(which seem infinitely many)
expressionless, perfectly blank.
The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)
a boxing match, a train wreck,
a battleship being launched,
does not wonder (as everyone wonders)
who will win, what flag she will fly,
how many will be burned alive,
is never distracted
(as everyone is always distracted)
by a barking dog, a smell of fish,
a mosquito on a bald head:
the crowd sees only one thing
(which only the crowd can see)
an epiphany of that
which does whatever is done.
Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,
(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes
and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.
Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,
but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.
Only because of that can we say
all men are our brothers,
superior, because of that,
to the social exoskeletons: When
have they ever ignored their queens,
for one second stopped work
on their provincial cities, to worship
The Prince of this world like us,
at this noon, on this hill,
in the occasion of this dying.

Last updated January 14, 2019