by W H Auden
Around them boomed the rhetoric of time,
The smells and furniture of the known world
Where conscience worshipped an aesthetic order
And what was unsuccessful was condemned;
And, at the centre of its vast self-love,
The emperor and his pleasures, dreading death.
In lovely verse that military order,
Transferring its obsession onto time,
Besieged the body and cuckolded love;
Puzzling the boys of an athletic world,
These only feared another kind of Death
To which the time-obsessed are all condemned.
Night and the rivers sang a cationic love,
Destroyer of cities and the daylight order,
But seemed to them weak arguments for death;
The apple tree that cannot measure time
Might taste the apple yet not be condemned;
They, to enjoy it, must renounce the world.
Friendly to what the sensual call death,
Placing their lives below the dogs who love
Their fallen masters and are not condemned,
They came to life within a dying order;
Outside the sunshine of its civil world
The savage waited their appointed time.
Its brilliant self-assertions were condemned
To interest the forest and draw death
On aqueducts and learning; yet the world,
Through them, had witnessed, when predestined love
Fell like a daring meteor into time,
The condescension of eternal order.
So, sown in little clumps about the world,
The fair, the faithful and the uncondemned
Broke out spontaneously all over time,
Setting against the random facts of death
A ground and possibility of order,
Against defeat the certainty of love.
And never, like its own, condemned the world
Or hated time, but sang until their death:
"O Thou who lovest, set its love in order."
Quite suddenly her dream became a word:
There stood the unicorn, declaring - "Child";
She kissed her dolls good-bye and one by one
Embraced the faithful roses in the garden,
Waved for the last time to her mother's home,
And tiptoed out into the silent forest.
And seemed the lucky, the predestined one
For whom the stones made way without a word;
And sparrows fought to make her feel at home,
And winds restrained their storms before the child;
And all the children of that mother-forest
Were told to let her treat it as her garden.
Till she forgot that she was not at home
Where she was loved, of course, by everyone,
Could always tell the rose-bush - "Be a forest."
Or make dolls guess when she had thought a word,
Or play at being Mother in the garden
And have importance as her only child.
So, scampering like a sparrow through the forest,
She piled up stones, pretending they were Home,
Called the wild roses that she picked "My Garden,"
Made any wind she chose the Naughty One,
Talked to herself as to a doll, a child
Whose mother-magic knew the Magic Word.
And took the earth for granted as her garden:
Till the day came the children of the forest
Ceased to regard or treat her as a child;
The roses frowned at her untidy home,
The sparrows laughed when she misspelt a word,
Winds cried:"A mother should behave like one."
Frightened and cruel like a guilty child,
She shouted all the roses from her garden,
And threw stones at the winds: without a word
The unicorn slipped off into the forest
Like an offended doll, and one by one
The sparrows flew back to her mother's home.
Of course the forest overran her garden,
Yet, though, like everyone, she lost her home,
The Word still nursed Its motherhood, Its child.
If one could name the father of these things,
They would not happen to decide one's fate:
He woke one morning and the verbal truth
He went to bed with was no longer there;
The years of reading fell away; his eyes
Beheld the weights and contours of the earth.
One must be passive to conceive the truth:
The bright and brutal surfaces of things
Awaited the decision of his eyes,
These pretty girls, to be embraced by fate
And mother all the objects of the earth;
The fatherhood of knowledge stood out there.
One notices, if one will trust one's eyes,
The shadow cast by language upon truth:
He saw his role as father to an earth
Whose speechless, separate, and ambiguous things
Married at his decision; he was there
To show a lucid passion for their fate.
One has good reason to award the earth
The dog-like dumb devotion of the eyes;
Death, love, dishonour are predicted there,
Her arbitrary moments are the truth;
No, he was not the father of his fate;
The power of decision lay with things.
To know, one must decide what is not there,
Where sickness is, and nothing: all that earth
Presented was a challenge to his fate
To father dreams of talking oaks, of eyes
In walls, catastrophes, sins, poems, things
Whose possibilities excluded truth.
What one expects is not, of course, one's fate:
When he had finished looking at them, there
Were helpless images instead of things
That had looked so decided; instead of earth
His fatherless creation; instead of truth
The luckiest convention of his eyes:
That saw himself there with an exile's eyes
Missing his Father, a thing of earth
On whose decision hung the fate of truth.
Castle and crown are faded clean away,
The fountain sinks into a level silence;
What kingdom can be reached by the occasions
That climb the broken ladders of our lives?
We are imprisoned in unbounded spaces,
Defined by an indefinite confusion.
We should have wept before these occasions,
We should have given what is snatched away;
O columns, acrobats of cheering spaces,
O songs that were the royal wives of silence,
Now you are art and part of our confusion;
We are at loggerheads with our own lives.
The order of the macrocosmic spaces,
The outward calm of their remote occasions,
Has lost all interest in our confusion;
Our inner regimen has given way;
The subatomic gulfs confront our lives
With the cold stare of their eternal silence.
Where are the kings who routed all confusion,
The bearded gods who shepherded the spaces,
The merchants who poured gold into our lives?
Where the historic routes, the great occasions?
Laurel and language wither into silence;
The nymphs and oracles have fled away.
And cold and absence echo on our lives:
"We are your conscience of your own confusion
That made a stricken widow of the silence
And weeping orphans of the unarmed spaces,
That laid time waste behind you, stole away
The birthright of innumerable occasions."
O blessing of reproach. O proof that silence
And condemnation presuppose our lives:
We are not lost but only run away,
The authors and the powers of confusion;
We are the promise of unborn occasions;
Our presence is required by all the spaces.
The flora of our lives could guide occasions
Without confusion on their frisking way
Through all the silences and all the spaces.
Last updated January 14, 2019