Print

Print


Here War Is Simple

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.


          I have recently been reading an extraordinary book, Shoshana Zuboff"s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.  Not for the first time, but formerly I only made it a third of the way through.  It is a remarkable book, which by examining the data-gathering of the behemoth internet companies - Google, FaceBook et. al. - shows how the corporate world is taking over, dominating, controlling, our psyches.  In other words, the corporate sector owns and manipulates our inner lives.

          Don't worry, this is not a laudatory book review of Zuboff's work.   What I will write about is one poem in W. H. Auden's 1937 sequence, the "China Sonnets."  Why then did I lead off with Zuboff?  Because she greatly admires the sequence, and quotes it again and again.  I know Auden fairly well, but had never read these sonnets.  After encountering Auden several times in Zuboff, I thought to myself, "It is time to read the 'China Sonnets.'"  So I did.   Tough going, many of them.  Hat's off to Zuboff for liking such a long and difficult work.

          In my view, which is probably jaundiced, Auden had a few golden years.  His early poetry is, to my mind, precocious, flaunting his poetic powers even as he has not all that much to write about.  His late poetry is overly Christian: like T. S. Eliot, he found a needed coherence as he aged by embracing religion.

          In between, for several miraculous years between 1936 and 1940, Auden engaged the world.  He went to Spain to drive an ambulance for the Republicans, he traveled to Iceland and to China, he emigrated to the United States.  He wrote poems about politics and world affairs, and also about love.

          The "Sonnets from China" date from this period.  Auden and his (briefly) lover and long-time collaborator Christopher Isherwood wrote a book of prose, photographs and poems called In Time of War.  It was in this volume that the sonnets first appeared, to be revised and published separately  in later years.

          The sonnets, as I said, are tough.  They begin with a sonnet about Creation, more or less modeled on the Bible and after charting the early history of humankind proceed to a consideration of the condition of human beings in a time of world-wide war.  The twelfth sonnet is reproduced at the start of this essay, and I shall discuss it.  So let's begin.

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls.
          War, we are told in the first line, is simplified: the stanza itself is simple.

          The simile ("like a monument") reveals that simplifying war eliminates its human dimension, reducing the vitality and multiple dimensions of life to something that is  "like a monument." Monuments, we know, are erected after events, they are often the grandiose, they tend toward stone - marble, granite, bronze.  Monuments are very far from the flesh and blood that is the stuff of the casualties of war.  (Perhaps this is why the monument to the Vietnam war in Washington is so beloved?  It consists primarily of the names of the Americans who died in that war.)

          The stanza?  We appear to be in headquarters.  Most of what  we encounter in these four lines, including the monument, is an object.  War in this first stanza is seen from the point of view of those commanding the troops,  an elaborate 'game' dominated by inanimate objects.  Not the bodies of soldiers.  We learn that the telephone speaks to a man.  Note that what we have here is not one man speaking to another, mediated by technology, but technology speaking.   Individual soldiers are reduced to, replaced by, flags on a map.  The 'game' of war is being played, even though it concerns individual men: "troops that were sent."  The distance of the commanders, far from their individual troops, is emphasized by the seeming subservience and inconsequence of the "boy" who brings the generals milk, "in bowls."

          Command in war, in this opening stanza, is distant from any carnage, unconnected to the bodies that will be mutilated.  Headquarters are serenely distant from the deaths that will take place on the battlefields that the decisions made in headquarters will determine.

          The stanza ends with the first half of an enjambed line, "There is a plan."  Yes, there is.

          But the plan is very different from what occurs when the plan is implemented.  We will encounter the resultant actuality when the enjambed line continues into the second stanza:

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

As opposed to the simplicity of the monument and flags on a military map and telephones in the distant headquarters of the first stanza, here in the second we see "living men in terror of their lives."

          Auden goes on to provide specificity to this generalized description of men living in terror.  "Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon.  These men live outside of the rhythms of 'normal' time.  Their premature death is augured: their thirst is slaked ahead of time, as if there were no possibility of drinking at noon: at noon, quite likely, they will be dead.          I find this is one of the most moving lines in the poem: in war death comes before its normal time.

          The men "can be lost and are."  Prematurely.  They miss ordinary yet significant things in the lives we live.  "They miss their wives." Love and the possibility that it can continue and save them, is forestalled.  It is all "too soon."

And can be lost and are, and miss their wives
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

Men die.  An idea, the machinations of the generals of the first stanza, has sent those men to their deaths. Yet we understand that the "idea" also refers to ideologies which incite and promote war and which endure, even as flesh, in warfare, does not endure.  The ideology which inspires war (here I am sure Auden is being ironic) lives even as individual men, set on their mortal course by the ideology, perish.

          Let's take a breath and consider this poem's form.  This is, as the title of the sequence tells us, a sonnet.  We have just gone through the octave, eight lines with wtwo quatrains which rhyme ABAB and have ten syllables to a line. Auden is writing conventionally, using the iambic pentameter and rhymed couplets we expect in a sonnet.  Those conventions are about to change.  Yes, there will be two tercets making up the sestet; yes, the conventional Shakespearean form for ending in a couplet will be adhered to (CDC DEE).  But, and it is a momentous 'but,' the syllable count fades:10, 9, 6, 9, 6, 4.  Just as human life diminishes as the casualties of war mount up, just as we ourselves are diminished by the enormity of the destructiveness of our century, so the sonnet itself diminishes.

          Here is the first tercet:

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

The ideas which "can be true" here are not, I think, the same "idea" we encountered at the end of the previous stanza.  That "idea" sends men to their death.  This ideological idea is at the end of the tercet revealed as a motivating lie.  But there are other 'ideas.'  The ideas which can be true are ideas of compassion, humans living in peace, in harmony, in comradeship.  These remain true even in the face of war and its destruction.   Men die in the final two lines of this tercet because of the "lie" which sent them forth to battle each other.  The ideas that are "true," well, they remain true even as the motivating lie sends men to their deaths.

          So we arrive at the magisterial final tercet, which as I said before, dwindles away before us: the syllables in each line are reduced from the one preceding it until the poem comes to a final unassailable truth.  Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, "There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity."  The novel's  protagonist, Frederic Henry, listens to  a speech full of martial rhetoric - "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow" - and recognizes that these debased 'ideas,' which motivate the command staff in stanza one of this poem, most sadly do not "die too soon."

          Auden opposes bogus patriotic and martial ideas with the stark reality of place names.

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.

          We have come a long way from the "flags on a map" of wartime headquarters which we encountered in the first stanza.  Those flags recall the patriotic national flags referred to in the closing line of a poem by Wilfred Owen which describes military deaths, "when each proud fighter brags/ He wars on Death for lives; not men, for flags."

          Here at the close of the poem we are faced with different maps than the generals' map with which the poem opened.  These maps "really point to places."  In those 'real' places we encounter evil, the signature of modern life.  The final line, four syllables, two place names, refers to the shame of the twentieth century.

          Dachau was, we all know, the first of the concentration camps.  Its iron gate was inscribed with an 'idea,' Arbeit Macht Frei.  "Work makes you free."  An idea such as that referenced in the second stanza, when humans die and the idea 'lives:' "And, unlike an idea, can die too soon."  Such tragedy: Arbeit Macht Frei was inscribed on the entrance to a place which came to symbolize imprisonment, death, genocide.

          The other name, Nanking, is perhaps less familiar.   I quote from a gloss on this line of the poem, which gets it exactly right, so there is no reason for me to paraphrase it.

In August 1937 Japanese forces invaded China and embarked on a savage war which lasted until 1945 and in which at least 10 million Chinese civilians were killed. In November the Japanese attacked Nanking, then China's capital city; by December they had taken it, and began a six week series of atrocities against the citizens. The soldiers raped, looted and burned, and upwards of 300,000 people were massacred with extreme cruelty.

          Nanking.  Dachau.  Emblems of the evil which ensnared us in the middle of the twentieth century.  (For those wondering why it is Dachau, and not the even more awful Auschwitz or Treblinka, the latter camps were established after Auden wrote this poem.  Their model, of course, was Dachau.)

          This is a horrible, terrible poem.  In our world bad ideas 'live,' while although the idea of the good endures, "men die."  Evil is real, it exists in our world, it is locatable.  We endure with the knowledge it has occurred, and will occur again.

          Auden writes that what we have, as we consider our twentieth century, is neither more nor less than: "Nanking. Dachau."

          Near the end of the "China Sonnets" is a poem that we might set against this chilling poem.  Perhaps here we can find some hope in our difficult, perilous, destructive times?


XIX

When all our apparatus of report

Confirms the triumph of our enemies,

Our frontier crossed, our forces in retreat,

Violence pandemic like a new disease,



And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited,

When Generosity gets nothing done,

Let us remember those who looked deserted:

To-night in China let me think of one



Who for ten years of drought and silence waited,

Until in Muzot all his being spoke,

And everything was given once for all.



Awed, grateful, tired, content to die, completed,

He went out in the winter night to stroke

That tower as one pets an animal.

Unlike the sonnet we just examined, its ending is Petrarchan: no couplet, but ABC ABC.  (Although the first two quatrains rhyme as they did in the earlier sonnet, ABAB.)  Ah, but it is not the poetic form that recommends this poem, but rather its response to the perilous conditions - Nanking, Dachau - which Auden and all the denizens of the twentieth century were confronted by and lived with.

          The "War Sonnets" were introduced by a sonnet dedicated to the novelist E. M. Forster.  By the time Auden had revised the sequence into "Sonnets from China," it had become the closing poem of the sequence.  In it, he praised Forster (rightly, I think, as a fellow admirer of the novelist) for his timeliness to situations faced by those who live in modernity, as Auden did, as we do.  He praised Forster for understanding: "still you speak to us,/ Insisting that the inner life can pay."

          Auden may have first dedicated, then concluded, his sequence by foregrounding Forster, but the hidden genius in the sequence is Rainer Maria Rilke.

          I would guess that those of you who have been reading many of these letters on poetry are not surprised that I picked up on a poem about Rilke, since he is, always surprisingly to me, one of my favorite poets.  [Forster has always been among my favorite novelists, the British fiction writer whom I most like and admire: yes, ahead of Joyce and Lawrence and Woolf.  But that is for another day.   Let me only say that in some ways Forster is the opposite of Rilke.  Rilke was the most 'poetic' of poets; Forster was so much less flashy than Joyce or Faulkner or even his friend Virginia Woolf.  That lack of flash, that unwillingness to enter into the high stakes race for the 'sovereign of modernity,' has always appealed to me.  Can one love both Rilke and Forster?  Yes, for art is like that.  Strange, contradictory.  And besides, as my father used to lecture me endlessly, De gustibus non est disputandum: there is no quarreling about tastes.]

          The nineteenth sonnet of Auden's sequence begins with a Yeatsian view of the world before turning to Rilke.  We can learn much from that turn, and what precedes it in the sonnet.

          The Yeats I am thinking of is the poet who wrote "The Second Coming" in 1916, beginning with the most famous lines ever written about our time (and, a century later, it is still our time!) and place, although Yeats was writing about World War I and revolution-torn Ireland.  Here is the first half of that poem.  You will recognize that this first stanza is an octave.  (The second stanza is a complete sonnet.)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The falcon flying in widening circles cannot hear the falconer who has set him loose: so it is, the metaphor tells us, with our world.  All is lack of cohesion, orderliness; the flow of events has gotten out of hand.  "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."  Not only is all chaos: worse, our times are suffused with violence."  (Oh, the irony of "mere anarchy"!  Oh, the sense that the tides which flow around us are "blood-dimmed.")

          The past of coherence and order and a center to things is, well, passed.  (For Faulkner, living with the remnants of a dead but not-dead South all around him, the opposite was true: ""The past is never dead. It's not even past."  Something Yeats would come to believe later, as I recounted in my prior email on "The Circus Animals' Desertion."  Oh well.)  Good people, in Yeats' poem, do not know what to do.   Bad people (think, as he did, of Hitler and Mussolini, or in our present era - pardon me, Republicans - Donald Trump) are passionately convinced that they have all the answers,

          Ah, I have just reduced one of the most glorious stanzas ever written to a prosy gloss.  Excuse me, please.

          I cited Yeats and glossed him because I think what Auden is doing in the first six lines of this stanza is channeling Yeats.  We know that Auden greatly admired Yeats.  His elegy on his Irish predecessor poet begins, as this elegy to Rilke begins, with a scientific report, in the case of Yeats a weather report:

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.



Auden begins similarly, "When all our apparatus of report..."  He goes on to report on a world remarkably like that of Yeats,



When all our apparatus of report

Confirms the triumph of our enemies,

Our frontier crossed, our forces in retreat,

Violence pandemic like a new disease,



And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited,

When Generosity gets nothing done,

Let us remember those who looked deserted:


Chaos (retreat), violence, a powerless 'best' and a charming 'worst.'  This is Yeats's "The Second Coming" in a minor key.

          But in Yeats's poem the poet sees, through a momentary lifting of darkness, the shape of the future, and knows,

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

          Auden has more hope than this belief in the birth of a new savage age.  He remembers "those who look deserted."  Far off from the devastation that is overwhelming Europe, he is considering the residue of the violence that swept through China.  He thinks of a person who 'sat out' the turbulence of the First World War.

          He's referring to Rilke.  In 1912 Rilke began what were to become, in my view, one of the signal achievements of modernity, the Duino Elegies.  But the First World War (1914-1918) interrupted his work, and his poetic output slowed and then stopped.  Rilke suffered an enormous writer's block.  Auden thought it heroic.

          In 1940, in the New Republic, Auden reviewed a translation of Rilke's wartime letters.  Let me quote extensively from that review.

For Rilke those four years were a negative and numbing horror that froze his poetic impulse, a suspension of the intelligible.....All that Rilke could do was to refuse to be a newspaper reader, to spend the time "waiting in Munich, always thinking it must come to an end, not understanding, not understanding.  Not to understand: yes, that was my entire occupation in these years."

To be conscious but to refuse to understand, is a positive act that calls for courage of a high order.

Now in this second and even more dreadful war, there are few writers to whom we can more profitably turn, not for comfort - he offers none - but for strength to resist the treacherous temptations that approach us disguised as righteous duties.

          I myself do not agree with Auden.  I strenuously disagree, most of the time, that a resistant passivity is the proper response to destruction and tyranny:  Ethical duty, heroism, lie in strenuous resistance.  We must, in words Hawthorne used of Melville, "Say NO in thunder."

          Yet Auden is a wise and thoughtful man, and so we listen to what he has to say.  He admired Rilke's refusal to acknowledge destructiveness, his unwillingness to write.  He even called it "heroic."  He referred to Rilke's words, which in Auden's phrasing echo Forster in Howard's End, referring to  the German poet in this way: war "condemns him [man] to be an isolated, one-sided creature who is no longer connected with the whole."  One thinks of Forster - "only connect" is the great byword of Howard's End - and of Forster again when Auden claims of Rilke that "he sees in what miscarried and muddled conditions human things are content and persist.  "Muddled:" another word with deep resonance in Howard's End.

          I've gone on about this review at such length because I think it helps us understand the nineteenth sonnet and its turn towards Rilke.  That turn begins near the end of the octave, "Let us remember those who looked deserted:/ Tonight in China let me think of one...."

          The one he thinks of, of course, is Rainer Maria Rilke, who years after the war, years after living as a guest in the homes of others, finally made residence in a home of his own, a small tower in the Swiss town of Muzot.  According to Auden, in both the poem and his review of Rilke's letters from the war years, Rilke waited through the war, waited, waited, until poetry once again came to him.

Until in Muzot all his being spoke,
And everything was given once for all.

What was given was the completion of the Duino Elegies, and a new outpouring, without equal in human history, of fifty-five astonishing sonnets, The Sonnets from Orpheus.  What had been pent up during the war flowed out, no longer dammed by silence and his refusal to speak, a poetic flood that has as I said has no parallel in human history.  "All his being spoke."

          I think what Auden is telling us is that the only response to the destructiveness to our age is silence, waiting and, finally, art.  All our being can speak, will speak, if we give it time.  (I have already said I do not agree with this point of view.  But it is Auden, not Huck Gutman, whom we are considering here,)

Awed, grateful, tired, content to die, completed,
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That tower as one pets an animal.

          After "his being spoke," Rilke was exhausted, depleted.  Not far from death: the actual circumstance was that he died at Muzot only a few years later.  "Awed, grateful, tired, content to die."

          The end of the sonnet is in what, in music, we would call a minor key.  Rilke goes out into the "winter night" - both of those words symbolic of endings and death - to caress the physical world, "to stroke/ That tower as one pets an animal."  He's referring to a line that Rilke wrote to his to his former lover and long-time friend Lou Andreas-Salome on February 11, 1922: "I went out and stroked, as if it were a great old beast,  the little Muzot that had sheltered all this for me, that had, at last, vouchsafed it to me."

          What are we to make of this strange sonnet?  I think, as I said earlier, it is a response to the earlier sonnet and our knowledge that "life is evil now."  We live in a time of, and after, Dachau.

          Art, Auden tells us, is the only response we can muster against the destructive terrors of our age.  We must gird our courage, wait, and finally speak into the horrible silence around us.

          Is art sufficient? I don't think so.  I am not sure Auden thought so, either.  But what other response, he asks, can we turn to when faced by the murderous liquidations of human life that characterize the twentieth century?

          The "China Sonnets" do not end with this elegy to Rilke, with its paean to art as, finally, all we have.  The succeeding sonnet lays, against the stone monuments left by the dictators who embraced destruction, the simple folk who by living left a feeling that life can be, is, more than fascist memorials.

          The final sonnet, as I have said, was originally the introductory sonnet.  It is dedicated to E. M. Forster.  "Still you speak to us,/ Insisting that the inner life can pay."  It is through art that Forster told us that, and the characters who work on their 'inner lives' in Howard's End, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, cultivate their inner lives through their embrace of art.

          Is art enough, is it sufficient in the face of massive destruction?  No.  But Auden, who bravely confronts the destructiveness of our age, says it is what we have.




If you know a friend who wants to subscribe, just have them address an email to [log in to unmask]<mailto:[log in to unmask]> and in the body of the email  write:  subscribe poetry Your Name
Send the email, and you will be added to the list.  eg: subscribe poetry Mary Miller
You will get a response asking you to click on a link that assures you really want to join.  Click on that link. You will get a message in your email saying you are signed up.

If you get tired of getting these emails, address an email to  [log in to unmask]<mailto:[log in to unmask]> and in the body of the email write:  unsubscribe poetry  Send the email, and you will be taken off the list.     eg: unsubscribe poetry

If you have a response, write me at [log in to unmask]<mailto:[log in to unmask]>