But a couple of months ago, Prog Rock quoted some Auden to me - it was Lullaby, which opens:
Lay your sleeping head my love,
Human on my faithless arm
(I love that)
We were having one of those Big Discussions. Prog Rock doesn't shy away from Big like I do. It was about the nature of love and the meaning of life. Yes, I told you. I can only do this kind of thing once every ten years or so, then I have to go back to being deeply trivial and thinking about face cream and shoes and magazines. Anyway, he was saying that there were two Auden quotes that he had taken a lot of comfort from after mum died. One was from Lullaby, the part that goes:
"but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought
Not a kiss nor a look be lost"
and the other was one that Auden himself changed subsequently, the line in September 1, 1939, that originally read:
"We must love one another or die".
Prog Rock said he much preferred the revision, which goes:
"We must love one another and die";
He liked the sense that both were equally inevitable, inexorable, essential. That they belonged together.By this point I was twitching and sweating with existential terror and ran away to watch crappy tv and empty my mind, but those lines had lodged in my head, and on one of my London bookshop trips, I bought myself a Collected Auden. It was only at this point I remembered, not only that he was born in York, but also that he wrote that famous poem about Breughel's Fall of Icarus that for some reason, I remember my mum sending me in my final year at Oxford. She sent me a lot of little parcels of encouragement and solace of one kind or another. I particularly remember a huge bunch of anemones, with a card that read "Nearly time to come out Persephone".
Anyway. The poem is called Musée des Beaux Arts, which is precisely where I catch the number 92 tram on my ennui days, and Breughel's Flight of Icarus is still there. Auden visited Brussels in 1938 and also wrote Brussels in Winter and Gare du Midi about the city.
This is The Fall of Icarus:
And the poem, which you probably all know, is this:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
And today it makes me think that this time 8 years ago I was finally, ecstatically pregnant, consumed with nausea and exhaustion and my own trivial anxieties. I was in a hotel room, at a conference, somewhere near Brentford where I was on a boring secondment to a pharmaceutical company. I had made an excuse not to go to dinner since I could only eat pretzels without vomiting, and I sat on my institutional bed, alone, and watched aeroplanes fly into buildings.