411. (W.H. Auden)

Someone wants something—and they think about what it is to want something, and literature happens.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm.

But the speaker addresses someone sleeping; the command, or request, is impotent, or belated; it can only summon into being what has already taken place. So, for Auden, the condition of poetry. “Lay” shuns “lie,” admits the colloquial sexual possibility, but again neither seems to matter much, since it is a “sleeping head.” Only the head sleeping? Or the body and heart too? But they live and feel without the mind; and this poem will appeal to apprehension that is other than intellectual. “Human” opens up: as in Whitman’s “The Sleepers,” most vulnerable and exposed as human when asleep, but also, more humbly, merely human, nothing except a human form, a human being, not acting or aspiring, but existing, the weight held on an arm that is “faithless.” He is not “faithless,” but the specification of “arm,” rather than disown responsibility, is touched with self-accusation, with a sense of the multitudes that he, bodily, is, and for which he is responsible. “Faithless” draws “human” into its orbit; to be human is to risk being faithless and to vulnerable to the faithlessness of others. In the background of “faithless arm” is a weapon, the arms of war, pointedly excluded.

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

“Burn away” purifies, an impersonal beauty left from the “individual” beauty of “thoughtful children,” with “thoughtful” other than “thoughtless,” perhaps the thought of children aware of time, confronted with “the grave.” The colon does the work of nineteenth-century punctuation, a greater break than a semi-colon, but greater continuity than a full-stop. “But” is in defiance of this reality, of time and fevers (of love, of delusion, of idealism) that distill from the individual, against this abstraction, “let” asks, begs or prays, that this living creature be exempted. “Creature” needs to be set against the “human” of the first stanza, and “children,” as something that is made, that is a single entity, that is sufficient as it is, without the temporal ordering of childhood and adulthood. “Lie” returns to “lay” but also to “faithless,” admitting the pun in “lie”: the love might be feigned. “Arms” is now plural, the military sense admitted, the weapons lay down, Mars submitted to Venus, but present to be taken up. The second half of the stanza sets itself against not just the first but “proves”: it is this “proof” that the poet does not need or want; the “lie” is a lie that he does not want to find disproved. Beauty is ephemeral, but the lie of love is that some permanence is possible, that time, or the fever of love itself, will not burn away the beauty of the beloved, in the eyes of the lover. “Break of day” conspires with the broken vows, the broken words, and the severing of the loves. The stanza is taut with fear and hope; it clings to love and lover alike.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.

The colon here is different than that of the first stanza, permitting us to read that it is “to lovers” that “soul and body have no bounds,” as well as, what emerges only with “the vision Venus sends,” that the stanza is an elaboration of what the statement means. The colon opens to the blank of the page, a bound but also a blank, unbounded and indefinite. The riddle is why they have no bounds, and the answer is the vision: they are not bounded in what they feel and understand. “Lie” is now “lie upon,” and both are lying together, lying to one another, upon the slope, but also lying prone, side by side. The slope of Venus is the slope of her body, so it is also her soul and body that have no bounds, a corporeal landscape they inhabit, that holds them, as the one lover holds the other. “Ordinary swoon” may be a pun, ordinary as regular, but also ordinary as following the rules of the order, these being devotees of Venus, as the hermit, later, is not. What matters is not their swoon, not their posture, not their lying, but where they lie: they need to be in this place that has no bounds. “Grave” is earnest, serious, intensely so, but also fatal, the thought of death present even here, implicit in, complicit with, supernatural sympathy, universal love and hope. The “While” works similarly to “but” with coordination rather than logical relation, so that the abstract insight might wake the hermit’s sensual ecstasy as a matter of coincidence or as a matter of consequence; their love has charged even the atmosphere of his existence among the barren glaciers and rocks so that his abstract insight can be had. The lag of the object of “wakes,” the uncertainty as to whether it is waking anything or just waking up, mirrors the action: the insight happens, seems to wake, only to wake, in its wake, the sensual ecstasy that recalls the hermit to the desire he has denied.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreaded cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

“Stroke of midnight” is perhaps a sensual pun, midnight being when one strokes the other, at which time “certainty” and “fidelity” pass, and the wit in “like vibrations of a bell” is such that we are led to associate “stroke of midnight” with the “vibrations of a bell,” which it is in fact something else that must have run “certainty” and “fidelity” into being; if it is that they pass on the stroke of midnight, then it must have been at midnight that they sounded, or else that at midnight their sound crested, so that they came into themselves at the moment of their passing, they began passing in the instant of their realization; they are present and register only as an afterthought even as they fade. The lie is that they could be held in place. “Raise” is not “rise” but it works against the “lie” of the lovers; they raise their cry, they account, they insist on tit-for-tat, and on preserving. The question is whether, and when, in the final five lines of the stanza the madman’s cry ends. Does it end at “paid,” with the subsequent “but” clause opposing the cry, or does it continue to the end of the stanza, so that the “but” clause forms a part of the cry. Is it mad to think that this night will be exempt from the dreaded repayment, that the cost of this night will go unaccounted or unpaid, or is it necessary to oppose the pedantic boring madman who believes the cost of such a night must be paid? Or to put the question another way: is it mad to think that everything from this night will be preserved and unpaid, or is it mad to think that it will be paid and lost? We can take the madman as saying either, but the potential for reading the line the other way suggests that the poet might be implicated in another form of madness—the madness of love and longing.

One of the wonderful things about the poem is that Auden is both within the feeling and stands apart from it, oscillating between the two, but here, in the final lines of this third stanza, leaving it indeterminate where he is, just as he is both one of the lovers, and then imagining lovers (“to lovers” has a suggestion of “two lovers,” and the two lovers of the first stanza) on Venus’ slope, and here, in the third stanza, within the field of certainty and fidelity passing away like vibrations on a bell. The old trick of poet and pilgrim, the one a diagnostician, the other experiencing symptoms, is reimagined in this poem, so that they flicker in and out, as happens with a picture that is both an old and young woman, depending on the focus of the eye. Desire becomes judgment becomes desire.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

The vibration of the bell “dies” with the word “dies” so that “beauty, midnight, vision” are somehow related to “certainty” and “fidelity,” and the entire poem is made the shockwave, the aftermath, of a collision between lovers; the eroticism is in the poem’s coming after, registering the seismic shock, the climactic instant when soul and body know no bounds, but also being utterly unlike the inarticulate moan of pleasure. “Dies” here is also the return of death, the first time the word appears, though nobody dies; this too is ephemeral, so whereas it is the grave that proves the child ephemeral, this is the passing vision of sexual maturity. Auden in this stanza imagines the lover waking refreshed, restored by the night’s bliss. The “sleeping head” has become the “dreaming head,” as the poet’s visionary dream has died. “A day of welcome” is pitched without excess: a day that is welcoming, that welcomes you into itself, for what it is, that accepts, embraces, allows dwelling, and it is the day that will do this, and not the poet. The poet has stirred, has stood up, is departing; these are words of farewell. “Knocking heart” is the heart’s clumsy desire, the heart that bruises, the heart that knocks on the door to ask for welcome, and they “may” bless, are permitted to bless, as they are permitted to enter, to be welcome; “find the moral world enough,” both good enough but also satisfying enough, and “enough” on its own terms, in its own fashion, without needing to modify that word. This itself could have been an ending; it could have been enough; but it is not. The loved object is to be looked upon, tended to, protected; the poet might leave but cannot leave behind the thought of caressing, even as “noons of dryness” is dry without sex. “Noons…find you” reverses “find the moral world enough.” It is, in the end, the lover who should be found. “The involuntary powers” have no will because of the lover’s beauty, but also because they are habitual, because they move by the instinctive desire to nurture. “Nights of insult” admits what we did not need to be told; that the poem was written within, and served as, a protection against “nights of insult.” “Let you pass” gives us a last instance of “let,” subordinate to the “Let” in the second line, and not so much ceding power as conceding the limits of that first “Let,” granting that he is imploring that the cruelty of the world grant. “Pass” returns to the fading sound of certainty and fidelity at the start of the second stanza, to the ephemeral experience suggested throughout, but here it is the liberation of escape, of security, the freedom that redeems transience; it does not say that we must not cling, but it gives rise to the thought that clinging, holding fast, may be intimate with the desire to do harm. “Watched by every human love” comes full-circle, with a difference: it is not the first-person of the poet watching, but the poet beseeching that the loved one is watched, and not watched by (and not, crucially, watched OVER by) “every human lover,” and not “loved by every human,” but watched by every aspect of, every sort of, every instance of human love, and it comes near to personifying love, but it does not do so. The word “every” is the crux of the line, because it implies not just that there are many sorts of human love, but opens the possibility that to count human loves we must count entities that are not abstract at all—that are either people, or some people, or elements already existing in the world. It pulls in the direction of multitudinous particularity, against love as an entity looking down. It is not “watch over” because they are apart but not above; they watch, attentive, fascinated, with the intensity of attention that is, Auden said elsewhere, love itself, but that does not ask for more than to gaze, as Auden gazes in the poem, coming to its final rest on the word that can no longer be attached to the possessive “my.”

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