Archive for W.H. Auden

A Walk after Dark

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 23, 2012 by telescoper

A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
Eighteenth-century way.

It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shameless a stare;
The things I did could not
Be so shocking as they said
If that would still be there
After the shocked were dead.

Now, unready to die
But already at the stage
When one starts to resent the young,
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of Middle-age.

It’s cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People’s Home
Than a shed for a faultless machine,
That the red pre-Cambrian light
Is gone like Imperial Rome
Or myself at seventeen.

Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
Only the young and the rich
Have the nerve or the figure to strike
The lacrimae rerum note.

For the present stalks abroad
Like the past and its wronged again
Whimper and are ignored,
And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened did.

Occurring this very night
By no established rule,
Some event may already have hurled
Its first little No at the right
Of the laws we accept to school
Our post-diluvian world:

But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgement waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.

Written in 1948 by by W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

The Unknown Citizen

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2012 by telescoper

I thought of this poem when I was moaning the other day about the widespread use of the term “Citizen Science” to describe, e.g., the admirable activities of the Zooniverse. One aspect of their work, planethunters, employs enthusiastic amateurs volunteers from the general public to search for signs of exoplanets, for example, with a notable success during the recent series BBC Stargazing Live.

The problem I have with using the term “Citizen Science” is that it logically excludes those of us who happen to be professional scientists; we are citizens too! At least I hope we are…

Not that I’m pedantic or anything.

I like the word amateur which is derived from the latin verb amare (“to love”) and hence properly means someone who does a task out of love, rather than for money. I’d agree, though, that this has acquired negative connotations of amateurishness (i.e. “unprofessional”) so is probably unsuitable for modern use. But what other word would be better? I just had a look at my thesaurus and it suggests, e.g. “votary”, “layperson” and even “groupie” although I don’t think the latter will catch on!

Anyway, as you will see,  none of this has really got anything to do with the poem, which I’m just posting because the word “Citizen” made me remember it. Apologies for the small font size, but I wanted to ensure that the line breaks didn’t get messed up.

(To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

by W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Villanelle for the News of the World

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , , on July 8, 2011 by telescoper

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
News International knows the price  to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when Murdoch flaunts his dough,
If we should care what other papers say,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I hate you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from Wapping when they blow,
The Press Commission doesn’t know which way;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the readers really want it so,
The tabloids seriously intend to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the hacks all get up and go,
And all the Brooks and Coulsons run away?
Will time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

(with apologies to W.H. Auden)

After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 26, 2010 by telescoper

This, written by W.H. Auden, is probably one of the most famous poems written about physics. A quick google about showed me that Cosmic Variance already featured it, along with a bit of an explanation of some of the scientific references contained within it. What I’m not sure whether what that article says about Auden’s own father was a physicist is correct. I always thought he was a medical doctor…


If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidean space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn

You can hear a recording, made in 1965, of the poet himself reading this poem here.