Friday, 11 September 2009


I am a bit scared of poetry, in the same way as I am scared of astronomy or theoretical physics - it can be too vast, too abstract. I have a visceral aversion to thinking big thoughts; they spin me into an existential panic and I have to mentally walk my way around the biscuit aisle of Sainsburys before I calm down. Poetry unpicks my certainties. There are exceptions, but not many.

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.


Fountain pen sue said...

Beautiful post Waffle. I knew a lot of the Cantor people having worked in the London office in the early 90s. I will never forget the confusion and fear that day.

Margaret said...

"Where the dogs go on with their doggy life"

I remember walking around that night, finally going out after sitting in front of the TV all day, to dinner at a Chinese restaurant that was packed because no one in this town ever has anything in the fridge and there were still rescue trucks and construction trucks convoying down 2nd Ave and then: people walking their dogs. Because you always have to walk the dog even when the world has ended. That tiny, tiny shred of normality.

Anonymous said...

You are a very talented and special person, Belgian Waffle.
Thank you for your writing, it makes the world a better place.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Heartachingly true.

That day will forever be etched in my memory. I was a brand new teacher. We had watched the towers burning and the first one fall, huddled around a tv someone wheeled into the staffroom during recess. No cable, so the picture was fuzzy. Shocked, shaken, our safe world forever changed. Then walking back to the classroom after the bell to stand in front of my students after they came in from their recess play, children so full of life it seemed incongruous to the day. Knowing that as I stood there I had this knowledge of how the world they were growing up in was going to change dramatically. The weight of being an adult and being responsible for other people's children hit me like a tonne of bricks. I grew up that day.

Thank you for your beautiful words.

Laurel said...

What the other anon said.

Also, on a larger scale: as an American, I deeply appreciated the outpouring of goodwill and solidarity that citizens of other countries around the world felt and expressed to us on 9/11 and on the anniversaries of that terrible day. I am equally sorry we squandered it so--although that is, I think, a topic for another day. Today--just thank you.

Anonymous said...

My uncle was fired by Marsh & McLennan a month before 9/11. They occupied eight floors of the North Tower.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Very beautiful, Emma, you always are - Or should I call you Persephone?

The Spicers said...

What a perfect poem. I admit to being shallow as a puddle most of the time and generally avoid poetry for the same reasons you do, but Auden is an exception.
8 years ago I was in a fog of caring for my 1 year old son and was 4 months pregnant with my daughter. My 50-something mother had just suffered a stroke the day before and we didn't know whether it would turn out to be serious (it didn't). My husband called from work to say turn on the TV, and I switched it on just in time to see the 2nd plane hit the tower. Such a surreal and terrifying moment.

Mrs Maggoo said...

You really are the most exquisite of writers. And what a perfectly pitched poem - no, I hadn't read it. Am quite shamed for not having done so.

My mother's beloved brother worked on the 40th Floor of One WTC (where the first plane hit). He was lucky enough to get out unscathed and so all our lives were able to continue on as normal. But our family would have been blown to smithereens had he not. And I woke up this morning wondering how differently things would have been the last 8 years for us all without his lucky, narrow escape.

Such a fragile concept, normal life. Isn't it?

daydreamymama said...

Wonderful post. Truly the perfect poem to read today.
Thank you.

GingerB said...

Emma, I love you.

Today I watched a man with a not so big machine rip down my old garage so we can build one bigger and better. I couldn't help but remember those big buildings coming down. While my building collapsed, two courting butterflies flitted in and out of the dust, unconcerned by the chaos. Hmm.

Jessica K said...

Great post. And Auden's September 1, 1939 was actually quoted a lot after 9/11 since he wrote in New York after the invasion of Poland -the line about "The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night..." always grabbed me.
I love your writing. Always.

monk said...

You are quite, quite wonderful. I sat in Brazil not understanding a thing and with Seventh-Day Adventists telling me it was my fault and London and more specifically my whole family were next. My mother sent me poetry, and I would have ridiculed her a month earlier. I think she knew, though. Mothers do. However little you appreciate it.

wv: muddl.

Z said...

12 years ago this December, I trailled my daughter and younger son round that damn museum for hours (they refused to go to art galleries with me for years afterwards) because I was determined to find that painting, because of that poem, which I'd first read 30 years earlier.

I think that the commemoration of this day has a fundamental flaw; that it focuses on despair and anger rather than hope. As a contrast, Remembrance Day is on the day that peace was declared.

Red Shoes said...

This post is perfection.

softinthehead said...

Wow Emma what a post, beautiful imagery. BTW I know exactly what you mean about astronomy - I always think "whatever!! let;s concentrate of the mess we have made down here first" and of course your post brings all that to mind! Well done.

Laura Jane said...

Yes, Audin always can put words to our feelings of senseless despair and confusion, and 'let it not be so'.

Its a talent.

I was singing happy birthday to a friend, she was cutting her birthday cake, then saw her off just after 9.25pm and turned on the TV. The second plane had just hit and it became clear that it was deliberate.

I stitched the binding on my best friend's 40th birthday quilt as we watched the news unfold and the third and fourth planes crash.

Not much sleep was had that night as the world changed. People were crying openly the next day as we gathered in bleary-eyed shock. It still makes me tear up now.

I hope I never see anything like it again.

LaurenR said...

Yes, yes, yes. Horrors surround us and always will, and we go on and always will until we can't anymore. Are we stoics or mindless fools? Now and then we sit and wonder, and it hurts to think that hard, and that discomfort brings us as close to the truth as we will ever get.

Now seriously, back to the veggie sculptures, shall we?

72suburbs said...

I found you via Mr. London Street, and I'm so glad I did. This is a great bit of writing.

Chantal said...

Commenting late again because I've been away sans internet for the weekend and am just catching up, but I LOVE this post. Love love love.

September 1 1939 is possibly my favourite poem, and one which me and my dad can quote back and forth to each other. Best last verse EVAR. It reduces me to tears now, so god knows what it'll be like reading that when he's not around anymore. I love Lullaby as well - has the best pro-atheism (I'm biased) line ever - find the mortal world enough.

Just such a lovely post with such a brilliantly expressed sentiment. I remember the 'normalities' of that day along with the wtf-ness; this post encapsulates that perfectly. I think that's why I love your writing as well as Mr Auden's.

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BlkDragon96 said...

*purpurpur* Nothing like a slice of life with a healthy smear of Icarus mythos spread across it. The last paragraph of your post was almost poetry in and of itself.

I was sleeping on my (carpenter) father's hide-a-bed (couch) when he woke me up. What was to be my room was still sans floor. The poor man grew up in New York state and was really shaken, whereas he had swapped coasts to raise me (east->west (USA)) and I hadn't even heard of the World Trade Center previous. Still had to go to middle school that day.

Thank you for sharing, I hope all is well for you.

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