from The Cave of Making

by W H Auden

W. H. Auden

Who would, for preference,
be a bard in an oral culture,
obliged at drunken feasts to improvise a eulogy
of some beefy illiterate burner,
giver of rings, or depend for bread on the moods of a
Baroque Prince, expected,
like his dwarf, to amuse? After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.
[* * *]
Our forerunners might envy us
our remnant still able to listen:
as Nietzsche said they would, the plebs have got steadily
denser, the optimates
quicker still on the uptake.
[* * *]
We're not musicians: to stink of Poetry
is unbecoming, and never
to be dull shows a lack of taste. Even a limerick
ought to be something a man of
honor, awaiting death from cancer or a firing squad,
could read without contempt: (at
that frontier I wouldn't dare speak to anyone
in either a prophet's bellow
or a diplomat's whisper).
Seeing you know our mystery
from the inside and therefore
how much, in our lonely dens, we need the companionship
of our good dead, to give us
comfort on dowly days when the self is a nonentity
dumped on a mound of nothing,
to break the spell of our self-enchantment when lip-smacking
imps of mawk and hooey
write with us what they will, you won't think me imposing if
I ask you to stay at my elbow
until cocktail time: dear Shade, for your elegy
I should have been able to manage
something more like you than this egocentric monologue,
but accept it for friendship's sake.

Last updated January 14, 2019