Letter from Iceland

View Around Mývatn in Northeast Iceland

In the Thirties, two English poets, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, took a trip to Iceland. Auden wrote a book, published in 1936, called Letters from Iceland, which consisted of mixed prose, poetry, and photographs. The following is from a longer poem in Chapter III entitled “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard”:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourist sites have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge,
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.
Yet further, if you can stand it, I will set forth
The obscure but powerful ethics of Going North.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *
In England one forgets—in each performing troupe
Forgets what one has lost, there is no room to stoop
And look along the ground, one cannot see the ground
For the feet of the crowd, and the lost is never found.
I dropped something, I think, but I am not sure what
And cannot say if it mattered much or not,
So let us get on or we shall be late, for soon
The shops will close and the rush hour be on.

The reference to a “lack of wealth” refers to the relative poverty of Iceland until it became an independent country in 1946. Under the Danes,  the Icelanders were one of the poorest peoples in Europe. No longer.

The Fall of Rome

Cole Thomas’s “The Course of Empire”

Cole Thomas’s “The Course of Empire”

That’s the title of this poem by W. H. Auden, dedicated to his friend Cyril Connolly:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

The Fisc refers to Britain’s tax agency, also known as The Inland Revenue.

 


					

“The Stars Are Not Wanted Now”

Wystan Hugh Auden, by Bill Potter, bromide print, 1972

Wystan Hugh Auden, by Bill Potter, bromide print, 1972

This poem by W. H. Auden, variously called “Funeral Blues” and “Stop All the Clocks, Cut Off the Telephone,” is the second part of “Two Songs for Hedli Anderson.” Antoinette Millicent Hedley Anderson (1907-1990) was an English singer and actor who was a good friend of the poet. As she outlived Auden by some twenty years, it appears the song was written for her to sing in a performance.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public
doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

“Epitaph on a Tyrant”

Robert A. Buhler’s W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

Robert A. Buhler’s W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

The above painting hangs at Oxford’s Christ Church College, where Poet W. H. Auden attended college. The following poem is a short one, but eloquent. It is called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.