10 February 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/7

Some say that love's a little boy,
     And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
     And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
     Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
     And said it wouldn't do.

     Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
          Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
     Does its odour remind one of llamas,
          Or has it a comforting smell?
     Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
          Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
     Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
          O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
     In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
     The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
     Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
     The backs of railway-guides.

     Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
          Or boom like a military band?
     Could one give a first-rate imitation
          On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
     Is its singing at parties a riot?
          Does it only like Classical stuff?
     Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
          O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
     It wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
     And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
     Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
     Or underneath the bed.

     Can it pull extraordinary faces?
          Is it usually sick on a swing?
     Does it spend all its time at the races,
          Or fiddling with pieces of string?
     Has it views of its own about money?
          Does it think Patriotism enough?
     Are its stories vulgar but funny?
          O tell me the truth about love.

     When it comes, will it come without warning
          Just as I'm picking my nose?
     Will it knock on my door in the morning,
          Or tread in the bus on my toes?
     Will it come like a change in the weather?
          Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
     Will it alter my life altogether?
          O tell me the truth about love.

W H Auden

Here's a poem (though it has such a rhythmic swing we might as well call it a song) about love that avoids most of the usual poetic symbols of love, unless you count a reference to Cupid ("a little boy") in the first line, though that's also a sly, punning reference to illicit and even indecent love. The poem is divided into stanzas that describe the narrator's search for love in the actual world and stanzas (which I'll call choruses to differentiate them from the first type) that are made up almost entirely of questions, whimsical, exotic, and mundane, speculating on what it is he's searching for. The only non-interrogative statement in the choruses is their invariable last line's plea: "O tell me the truth about love."

The matter-of-fact mid-century British world around the speaker doesn't seem too receptive to his search, and love seems like an elusive something that has just slipped away. When we are told that some say (in an old bromide) that love makes the world go round, that is immediately countered by those who say that such a claim is absurd: reality dismisses the metaphorical. This is a world of convention and propriety, with every attempt made to control the disruptive force of love: the narrator (with another hint at homosexuality, or, if you want to imagine a woman singing this, adultery) asks the man next door, "who looked as if he knew," about love, but his wife is immediately "very cross" and says in the beautiful and peremptory phrase of the right-thinking that "it wouldn't do."

This world is full of solid-seeming things, like history books, transatlantic ships, and railway guides, but love, often furtive, irregular, and disruptive, has left its fingerprints on these things too; there are "cryptic little notes" and scribblings in guide-books. It is a subject both of trivial conversation ("quite a common topic") and the cause of suicide. Place-names also hint of love, as if the visitor had stumbled on an unmade bed, its inhabitant just departed; there's the obvious joke about "Maidenhead" (an old term for a woman's virginity) and a reference to Brighton, the seaside resort for London day trippers which was notorious, at least for a while, as a place to arrange adulteries and divorces. The birds and flowers of love poetry make an appearance only to be dismissed as bafflements ("I don't know what the blackbird sang / Or what the tulip said" – perhaps "tulip" is meant to conjure up, however faintly, a mental image of "two lips"; love is always just under the surface, around the corner, over somewhere else).

The choruses conjure up a different world, one freer and fancier, in which everyday things – eiderdown, hedges, Alsatians (the dogs also known as German shepherds), a pair of pajamas – take on a a glamorous metaphorical edge: are these things like love? (Or, perhaps, is love like these things? – is it found exactly in the banal accouterments of standard domesticity?) The first chorus is mostly about smell and touch and outward appearance, but as they proceed love is increasingly personified with specific actions – is it (love, the loved one) fun at parties? Will it know when to leave the speaker alone? What are its views on patriotism and money? – subjects which seem to have nothing to do with love; the speaker is moving towards imagining another person, one with independent views, and a personality possibly unrelated to what the speaker loves in him or her. Love seems able to arise independently of the personality traits that may come to sum up the loved one in the speaker's mind. In the last chorus the speaker wonders when (not if, but when) the banality of his life (the nose-picking, the bus ride) will be disrupted by this mysterious force, about which he still has determined nothing ("Will its greeting be courteous or rough? / Will it alter my life altogether?"). The questions continue to the end; there is no answer.

I took this from the Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson.


Civic Center said...

Love the poem, and though I quickly deduced that it was British, had no idea that it was going to be from Auden. Was this written before he met Chester Kallman, by the way, or after?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Glad you loved it! As far as I can tell this poem was written slightly before he met Kallman -- it's dated January 1938 in my copy of the Collected Poems, and according to Wikipedia he met Kallman in 1939 -- but if anyone knows better I'm happy to be corrected.