Monday, October 03, 2005


Anti-Modernist Poetry

I think there is such a thing, and Auden's poetry would qualify. Below is his poem "We Too Had Known Golden Hours." (Escoffier refers to August Escoffier, 1946-1935, Frech chef of grand hotels such as the Savoy and Carlton in London):

We, too, had known golden hours
When body and soul were in tune,
Had danced with our true loves
By the light of a full moon
And sat with the wise and the good,
As tongues grew merry and gay
Over some noble dish
Out of Escoffier;
Had felt the intrusive glory
Which tears reserve apart,
And would in the old grand manner
Have sung from a resonant heart.
But, pawed-at and gossiped-over
By the promiscuous crowd,
Concocted by editors
Into spells to befuddle the crowd,
All words like Peace and Love,
All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased,
To a horrid mechanical screech.
No civil style survived
That pandaemoneum.
But the wry, the sotto-voce,
Ironic and monochrome:
And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburb of dissent?

"We, too..." The speaker speaks for a group. They are slightly past it now, but he wishes to remind the reader that they weren't always. They had danced with their true loves. They had sat and chatted memorably, though not with just any partying friends but with "the wise and the good." And under the influence of such friendship they -

had felt the intrusive glory
which tears reserve apart.

A bit British, the idea that you start out reserved. The larger point of course is that it isn't drugs, alcohol, loud music, sex or any combination of those that had opened their hearts, but "an intrusive glory."

I can't get past that phrase, the dignity it lends to this opening of the spirit, which occurs to sane and sober people whose only influences are good food, wise and good friends and their youth.

Moreover, these old fogeys who once were young, recalling their youthful fullness of spirit, recall also the desire to express that fullness, but not by howling at the moon or (as occurs around here in North Carolina) driving their pickups around town with the stereos blaring at an indescribable volume. No, they -

...would in the grand old manner
Have sung from a resonant heart.

From a resonant heart. Another phrase I can't get past, and don't want to. I can rest on such phrases, I know myself to be safe with them.

But we now to move to a minor key, as the old fogey, speaking for many old fogeys, recalls how, some time after those golden hours, words like Peace and Love began to be "pawed-at and gossiped-over by the promiscuous crowd." And yes, this is one of those "harder" sections in terms of poetic syntax, with the subject of the sentence, Peace and Love, being buried in the middle so that the overall meaning has to be puzzled out in a way that inexperienced poetry readers find a bit challenging. Aw, those poor overtaxed readers.

Back to the poem. Over time, misuse of the same exalted language that allowed their souls to find sublime expression has left them literally speech-less. The poem inadvertently supplies an example by innocently using the word "gay." And - a little irony drum roll please - the poet innocently using this phrase in a poem decrying the debasement of language is himself gay. Bah-dah-Boom!

Another great, painful, restful phrase: "All sane affirmative speech." Ah.

He concludes by noting that "no civil style survived / That pandeamonium." There are too many examples to choose from. Screeching talking head shows, most mau-mauing rappers, the season's sensational murder. I hardly have to make the case. As a result, sane and civil people are forced into a language that is "wry, sotto-voce, ironic and monochrome."

Here at the last Auden shows us what has been lost by this theft of language. An outlet for our souls' expression. For who among us may sing with a resonant heart as easily as we might have in a more sincere world?


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