W H Auden - Letter to Lord Byron  Revised text based on Longer Contemporary Poems lyrics


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W H Auden - Letter to Lord Byron Revised text based on Longer Contemporary Poems lyrics

I Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take In thus addressing you. I know that you Will pay the price of authorship and make The allowances an author has to do. A poet's fan-mail will be nothing new. And then a lord—Good Lord, you must be peppered, Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard, With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir, I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold's trash,' ‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?' Sometimes containing frank demands for cash, Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash, And sometimes, though I think this rather crude, The correspondent's photo in the nude. And as for man*scripts—by every post. . . I can't improve on Pope's shrill indignation, But hope that it will please his spiteful ghost To learn the use in culture's propagation Of modern methods of communication; New roads, new rails, new contacts, as we know From documentaries by the G.P.O. So if ostensibly I write to you To chat about your poetry or mine, There's many other reasons: though it's true That I have, at the age of twenty-nine Just read Don Juan and I found it fine. I read it on the boat to Reykjavik Except when eating or asleep or sick. The thought of writing carne to me today (I like to give these facts of time and space); The bus was in the desert on its way From Mothrudalur to some other place: The tears were streaming down my burning face; I'd caught a heavy cold in Akureyri, And lunch was late and life looked very dreary. But still a proper explanation's lacking; Why write to you? I see I must begin Right at the start when I was at my packing. The extra pair of socks, the airtight tin Of China tea, the anti-fly were in; I asked myself what sort of books I'd read In Iceland, if I ever felt the need. In certain quarters I had heard a rumour (For all I know the rumour's only silly) That Icelanders have little sense of humour. I knew the country was extremely hilly, The climate unreliable and chilly; So looking round for something light and easy I pounced on you as warm and civilisé. Then she's a novelist. I don't know whether You will agree, but novel writing is A higher art than poetry altogether In my opinion, and success implies Both finer character and faculties Perhaps that's why real novels are as rare As winter thunder or a polar bear. I must remember, though, that you were dead Before the four great Russians lived, who brought The art of novel writing to a head; The help of Boots had not been sought. But now the art for which Jane Austen fought, Under the right persuasion bravely warms And is the most prodigious of the forms. You could not shock her more than she shocks me; Beside her Joyce seems innocent as gra**. It makes me most uncomfortable to see An English spinster of the middle-cla** Describe the amorous effects of 'bra**', Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety The economic basis of society. Every exciting letter has enclosures, And so shall this—a bunch of photographs, Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures, Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs; I don't intend to do the thing by halves. I'm going to be very up to date indeed. It is a collage that you're going to read. Ottava Rima would, I know, be proper, The proper instrument on which to pay My compliments, but I should come a cropper; Rhyme-royal's difficult enough to play. But if no cla**ics as in Chaucer's day, At least my modern pieces shall be cheery Like English bishops on the Quantum Theory. ‘The fascination of what's difficult', The wish to do what one's nor done before. Is, I hope, proper to Quincunque Vult, The proper card to show at Heaven's door. Gerettet nor Gerichtet be the Law, Et cetera, et cetera. O curse, That is the flattest one in English verse. A publisher's an author's greatest friend, A generous uncle, or he ought to be. (I'm sure we hope it pays him in the end.) I love my publishers and they love me, At least they paid a very handsome fee To send me here. I've never heard a grouse Either from Russell Square um Random House, I know I've not the least chance of survival Beside the major travellers of the day. I am no Lawrence who, on his arrival, Sat down and typed out all he had to say; I am not even Ernest Hemingway. I shall not run to a two-bob edition, So just won't enter for the competition. The Haig Thomases are at Myvatn now, At Hvitarvatn and at Vatnajökull Cambridge research goes on, I don't know how: The shades of Asquith and of Auden Skökull Turn in their coffins a three-quarter circle To see their son, upon whose help they reckoned, Being as frivolous as Charles the Second. For since the British Isles went Protestant A church confession is too high for most. But still confession is a human want, So Englishmen must make theirs now by post And authors hear them over breakfast toast. For, failing them, there's nothing but the wall Of public lavatories on which to scrawl. Now home is miles away, and miles away No matter who, and I am quite alone And cannot understand what people say, But like a dog must guess it by the tone; At any language other than my own I'm no great shakes, and here I've found no tutor Nor sleeping lexicon to make me cuter. Professor Housman was I think the first To say in print how very stimulating The little ills by which mankind is cursed, The colds, the aches, the pains are to creating; Indeed one hardly goes too far in stating That many a flawless lyric may be due Not to a lover's broken heart, but ‘flu. I can't read Jefferies on the Wiltshire Downs, Nor browse on limericks in a smoking-room; Who would try Trollope in cathedral towns, Or Marie Stopes inside his mother's womb? Perhaps you feel the same beyond the tomb. Do the celestial highbrows only care For works on Clydeside, Fascists, or Mayfair? There is one other author in my pack For some time I debated which to write to. Which would least likely send my letter back? But I decided I'd give a fright to Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to, And share in her contempt the dreadful fates Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates. The average poet by comparison Is unobservant, immature, and lazy. You must admit, when all is said and done, His sense of other people's very hazy, His moral judgements are too often crazy, A slick and easy generalization Appeal too well to his imagination. She was not an unshockable blue-stocking; If shades remain the characters they were, No doubt she still considers you as shocking. But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare, How much her novels are beloved down here. She wrote them for posterity, she said; 'Twas rash, but by posterity she's read. So it is you who is to get this letter. The experiment may nor be a success. There're many others who could do it better, But I shall not enjoy myself the less. Shaw of the Air Force said that happiness Comes in absorption: he was right, I know it; Even in scribbling to a long—dead poet. I want a form that's large enough to swim in, And talk on any subject that I choose, From natural scenery to men and women, Myself, the arts, the European news: And since she's on a holiday, my Muse Is out to please, find everything delightful And only now and then be mildly spiteful. Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather; Except by Milne and persons of that kind She's treated as démodé altogether. It's strange and very unjust to my mind Her brief appearances should be confined, Apart from Belloc's Cautionary Tales, To the more bourgeois periodicals. Parna**us after all is not a mountain, Reserved for A.I. climbers such as you; It's got a park, it's got a public fountain. The most I ask is leave to shame a pew With Bradford or with Cottam, that will do: To pasture my few silly sheep with Dyer And picnic on the lower slopes with Prior, But now I've got uncomfortable suspicions, I'm going to put their patience out of joint. Though it's in keeping with the best traditions For Travel Books to wander from the point (There is no other rhyme except anoint), They well may charge me with - I've no defences— Obtaining money under false pretences. And even here the steps I flounder in . Were worn by most distinguished boots of old. Dasent and Morris and Lord Dufferin, Hooker and men of that heroic mould Welcome me icily into the fold; I'm not like Peter Fleming an Etonian, But, if I'm Judas, I'm an old Oxonian. So this, my opening chapter, has to stop With humbly begging everybody's pardon. From Faber first in case the book's a flop, Then from the critics lest they should be hard on The author when he leads them up the garden, Last from the general public he must beg Permission now and then to pull their leg.