Auden: aspects of our present Weltanschauung

Looking for something in Auden, I hit another passage, about human nature, art, tradition and originality (below), that I couldn’t put my finger on when I last needed it a few months ago. We’re edging towards the World Brain, but it can’t come fast enough:

It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student…. The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. — H G Wells, ‘The Brain Organization of the Modern World’ (1937)

Auden. I’ve often referred to this passage and am very happy to make it ready to hand through pinning it here:

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. … until recently, men knew and cared little about cultures far removed from their own in time or space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behaviour exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archaeology have destroyed this provincial notion: we know that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varieties of behaviour which, in the animal kingdom, could only be exhibited by different species.

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Further, the fact that we now have at our disposal the arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related in terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one.

It’s from ‘The Poet and The City’, which I think appeared first in the Massachusetts Review in 1962 and was then included in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Lots in this essay. ‘There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.’ The others:

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. … Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be.

We live now among ‘sketches and improvisations’.

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. … science has destroyed our faith in the naive observation of our senses: we cannot … ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular purpose we have in view. This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis …

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfils his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

‘Sorley’: Gaelic for wanderer

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895–1915. He left just 37 complete poems. Adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1989): 

His posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems (1916), was a popular and critical success in the 1920s, but he has since been neglected, though championed by Robert Graves amongst others. Graves said of Sorley that, with Owen and Rosenberg, he ‘was one of the three poets of importance killed during the War’. The best known of his poems include, ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners’, ‘Barbury Camp’, and the last, bitter ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ — found in the author’s kit sent home from France after his death.

Sorley’s father, describing his son’s life in a preface (1919) to Marlborough and Other Poems:

He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913, after obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November, and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some months in the trenches round Ploegsteert. Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.’ Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell on 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the “hair-pin” trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. ‘Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years.’

When I read his letters and papers, I am always taken aback by the voice that comes through — its unexpected modernity and warm intimacy:

… poetry up till now has been mainly by and for and about the Upper Classes … The voice of our poets and men of letters (ie, contemporary writers) is finely trained and sweet to hear: it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie. … all true poets (that is, poets who insist on truth) have been consciously or unconsciously in revolt. (From papers on Masefield and on Housman, read to the Marlborough College Literary Society, 3 November, 1912 and 15 May, 1913, respectively)

… the penalty of belonging to a public school is that one plays before the looking-glass all the time and has to think about the impression one is making. And as public schools are run on the worn-out fallacy that there can’t be progress without competition, games as well as everything else degenerate into a means of giving free play to the lower instincts of man. … One is positively encouraged to confuse strength of character with petty self-assertion, and conscientiousness with Phariseeism. (Letters: 25 February, and early April, 1914)

Do you know that Richard Jefferies, the greatest of English visionaries, felt exactly the same about the high parts of the downs as you? That you climbed great hills that should overlook the sea, but you could see no sea. Only the whole place is like a vast sea-shell where you can hear the echoes of the sea that has once filled it. Du Gott! One can really live up there! The earth even more than Christ is the ultimate ideal of what man should strive to be. (Letter: 14 November, 1914)

There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan. (Letter: March 1915)

Sorley is the Gaelic for wanderer. I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road. (Letter: 16 June, 1915)

… out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. The death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do’: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse. One is hardened now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns. (Letter: 26 August, 1915)

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my like will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers. … Ridley [a close friend at Marlborough and a Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] … recovered from his wound … Ridley with whom I brewed, ‘worked’ and shared a study, and quarrelled absolutely unceasingly for over three years. We have so thoroughly told each other all each other’s faults and oddities for so long a time that nothing now could part our friendship. (Letter to the Master of Marlborough College.
 One of three last letters, all dated 5 October, 1915.)

Eight days later, Sorley was killed, shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20.
 Herbert Ridley won an MC in 1917 and was killed in action at Ypres on 15 July that year, aged 23.

The Letters of Charles Sorley (CUP, 1919)

 Marlborough and Other Poems (fifth edition, CUP, 1922)

The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cecil Woolf, 1990)

The particular and the peculiar

Geoffrey Grigson

I find I’m seeking out older guide books about the areas of England I particularly like. In the good ones there’s a wealth of knowledge and an intensity of observation that’s very rewarding to work with — and of course they’ve become an object of cultural interest in their own right. So I’m pleased that Geoffrey Grigson’s The Shell Country Alphabet is back in print after 43 years. (That and The Englishman’s Flora are two books of his I’m glad to have to hand.)

I found this on the web (linked to from Wikipedia’s entry on Geoffrey Grigson):

His worldview is clearly evident in the enthusiasms he championed: brightly burning poets of the countryside such as John Clare; visionary artists from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extra-ordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. Flora, fauna and rural lore were presented in inspirational compendia and essay collections such as the Shell Country Book, The Englishman's Flora, Freedom of the Parish and the Shell Country Alphabet. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he edited the series of About Britain guides, penning the text of the volumes on Wessex and the West Country. Grigson also wrote books to lead children into an appreciation of the countryside, poetry and the visual arts; later he became an 'anthologist's anthologist', with a seemingly endless train of collections of epigrams and epitaphs, nonsense verse, 'unrespectable' verse. He revealed much light to be found in apparently dark and (at that time) neglected and disdained periods of literary history, the Romantics, the Victorians. He revived interest in forgotten poets such as William Diaper.


You can get a flavour of the Country Alphabet book from the large page spreads Penguin’s put online. Penguin’s done an attractive job with the presentation of this book (published under their imprint, Particular Books) and has this to say about it:

In the 1960s Geoffrey Grigson travelled around England writing the story of the secret landscape that is all around us, if only we take the time to look and see. The result is a book that will take you on an imaginative journey, revealing hidden stories, unexpected places and strange phenomena. From green men, ice-scratches, cross-legged knights and weathercocks to rainbows, clouds and stars; from place-names and poets to mazes, dene-holes and sham ruins, via avenues, dewponds and village greens, The Shell Country Alphabet will help you discover the world that remains, just off the motorway.

I like what Toby Barnard says about Grigson: ‘Geoffrey Grigson resurrected the minor, the provincial and the parochial ... [he was] an erudite and unrivalled topographer … ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place’. That’s well put: ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place.

I’ve been out a couple of times recently to Broad Town, where Grigson and his third wife, Jane, lived and are buried. The farmhouse that was theirs, where they both worked and wrote and where, it’s said, Edward Thomas once learned to make hay ropes, is close to Christ Church, the church that serves Broad Town. Locked when we went, the church itself seems undistinguished, but the churchyard is a spacious, sunny and quiet spot that looks out towards the Broad Town White Horse. The Country Alphabet tells me this was cut in 1863.

Last month I read Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads. Reviewing this, Craig Brown wrote:

Joe Moran is a young academic (and if his lecturing is half as good as his writing, I’d advise any young student to make a bee-line for the cultural history department at Liverpool University). Unlike most academics he is excited by the particular and the peculiar, and is obviously happy to spend time ferreting out odd information that more po-faced academics would dismiss as merely anecdotal. … Reading On Roads, I felt as though I was being introduced to a place I thought I knew well, and seeing it for the first time. Moran has the poet’s ability to find the remarkable in the commonplace.

And before On Roads, I was reading Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. The things he sees, feels, hears, touches and then writes about — and that stick in my mind! (Too much to choose from … ‘There are 243 beams in this house, proportions natural, set by the size of the trees and their girth. … Trees are the measure of things. … The first measures of length must surely have been cut on sticks. … Trees have given proportions to things too. … The standard width of a timber-framed house or barn, between sixteen and twenty-one feet, is the distance a single beam from an oak will normally span.’ ‘People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work. … And when we work on the land, what is our connection with it? Tools, and especially hand tools. Much can be learnt about the land from the seat of a tractor, the older and more exposed the better, but to observe the detail, you must work with hand tools.’)

I was fortunate to be taught Biology at school by a fine field biologist, Arnold Darlington. I was a poor student and am still learning to have my eyes wide open, but he set me off on a course I’m still on, observing and naming as best I can. There’s a thread here that connects all these writers and it’s why I really liked this article in the NYT, Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World:

We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life … losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. … we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism … and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. … Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.

Once you start noticing … once you have a name for (the) particular … you can’t help seeing life … just where it has always been, all around you.

Dyer’s hand

Red currants, immediately after picking

Garden and kitchen have been claiming their time. We were picking and prepping red currants for a couple of days and now — on to the gooseberries. Sometimes, the garden can feel very bossy (and that’s generally a good thing).

A little while back I had several books on the go, including The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald’s first collection of poems. In the time I’ve had just recently, I’ve been re-reading it. It’s very beautiful.

The sea had mastered them. They couldn’t make
even the simplest sense of what they had witnessed:
the moon, the birds, the crooked boat. They moved
far out between absurdity and wonder,
rocking like figures in a nursery rhyme,
the waves like great smooth beasts shoving them on.

The sea was miles and miles of palish tin
and a small countermoon was floating there,
very clear, very irregular perfect —
an aspirin in the middle of the world

and may the mystery move them now — the sea
cannot be finished with; each layer is laid
co-terminous with light but more than light
and seamless and invisible in water —
cannot be closed or opened, only entered …


As we work, the rhythm takes us over, until we look up, backs aching, hands, t-shirts and shorts part-dyed with berry juice. You and the work and the world immediately around you (and that’s all you are aware of now) have melded.

Monday, stacking wood for a couple of hours, the same with differences: splinters in my hands, a little blood on the wood, and, after a time, the feel and smell of the wood in my head.

 Stacked logs

And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.

Lucy straightens up, stretches, bends down again. Field-labour; peasant tasks, immemorial.

embodied actors interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.


The Guardian Saturday Poem


King Lear

It does not keep you safe; it does not

give you the words you need, it does not

tell you how much to pay, how much

they owe you. It will not work, like egg-yolks,

to cool the numb heat of lost eyes and treacheries.

It does not surrender to the reasonable

case for not risking everything to keep

secrets and rivals, the white line in the tickling

membrane of freedom. It will not keep you dry: rain,

like crying, sinks down to the bone.

It will not stop: not when you sleep, not

when you wake, not when you want it to,

not when you want to settle with the mirror

of your shame. Never. It will not. Never.

Rowan Williams

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Amongst poets

Adam Foulds came in to school on Thursday and read from The Broken Word (Sunday Times review here, Guardian here). Earlier this term, I read the poem in one sitting: it’s not difficult to do this, but it was, in any case, simply not a poem I wanted to break off from reading. It is very disturbing, not least because of the contrast between the quality of the telling and what it has to tell. Hearing so much of it read affected me greatly and, in winding up the reading, I slipped and called Adam ‘Robin’ — as his reading had melded in my mind with Robin Robertson’s also dark reading from earlier in the term.

Adam talked afterwards about the LRB review which lies behind the poem. You need a subscription, but the review, Bernard Porter: How did they get away with it?, discussed two books, David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire and Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Adam spoke about how Porter’s review, and then the two books themselves, shook the sense he had grown up with that, on the whole, and despite some shortcomings, British colonial rule had been a good thing. He had, he said, shared the ambient complacency about British rule. Porter’s review put it like this: “The accepted view of Britain’s decolonisation hitherto has been that it was done in a more dignified, enlightened and consensual way than by other countries – meaning, of course, France. It will be difficult now to argue this so glibly.”

Ambient complacency is a potent phrase, is it not?

Something else — unrelated — that Adam said after the reading also struck me: novels ‘take a group effort’. (His previous book is a novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.) They are so long — they can grow so ‘thin and wispy’ — a writer needs the collaboration of others to bring a novel into the world.

Of course, every author is different. Writing in The Observer’s Book of Books (a slim volume, given away free with the paper in May this year) about how he works as an editor (and drawing on his lengthy experience in publishing), Robin made just this point. His short piece should be read in full, but I can’t find it online. Here are some excerpts:

… an editor’s eye shouldn’t pass over a text too often for fear of losing the very objectivity the writer lacks. During a first read … I’m always watching myself for the first signs of inattention; any time that I’m stopped or distracted means there’s probably a problem in the text … If any changes do need to be made, I’d always ask the author to make them. After all, it is their book, and at this stage it’s still a thing in flux … You have to encourage the writer to see the problem, not just tell them there is one. Editing is about reading and listening attentively … I’ve always considered editing to involve quite a large degree of pastoral care.

What we hold in our heads

I’ve been remiss in writing up recent conferences, but I’m no longer sure that’s a bad thing. Instead of a summary that then, it seems, gets put away in my memory (here or elsewhere), I find I’m going back to things I’ve heard said, presentations made — and circling and circling. It seems to make for better thinking.

Here’s one thing I’ve been struck by, both when I saw it last month in Richard Sandford‘s geeKyoto presentation (Richard is a Learning Researcher at Futurelab; he’s blogged about geeKyoto here and his presentation is available here),

and when Matt wrote recently:

We see the world in fives: two generations back, our children, and our children's children, and ourselves. Time is a little planet with close horizons.

In his del.icio.us notes on Matt’s post, Rod excerpted and commented:

"And it's my job to carry the torch and god help me if I stumble, because I'm it now [...] and that's the burden of the middle" ... and even after kids arrive too: the burden of shepherding the generations either side on their journeys.

I don’t know for sure whether it’s true that no day goes by without my thinking of my father, who died four years ago this October, but his memory is always close and I often think of him. It certainly feels like not a day goes by without my thinking of him.

I know far too little about my grandparents’ and even, when I think about it, my parents’ lives.

And into my head comes the first part of Auden’s late poem (August, 1973), ‘The Question’. It’s short, so I’ll quote it all:

All of us believe
we were born of a virgin
(for who can imagine

his parents copulating?),
and cases are known
of pregnant Virgins.

But the Question remains:
from where did Christ get
that extra chromosome?

In his almost as brief discussion of the poem, John Fuller draws in Augustine writing about his parents, over 1600 years ago, in the Confessions (IX.xiii): ‘by whose bodies thou broughtest me into this life, though how I know not’.

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No sooner do I post about Auden and include 'The Fall of Rome' ('Cerebrotonic Cato may / Extol the Ancient Disciplines'), than up pops 'cerebrotonic' in another blog post.

'Cerebrotonic' sounds like an Auden coinage, but isn't. Here's the OED:

A. adj. Designating or characteristic of a type of personality which is introverted, intellectual, and emotionally restrained, classified by Sheldon as being associated with an ECTOMORPHIC physique. B. n. One having this type of personality. So cerebrotonia (-{sm}t{schwa}{shtu}n{shti}{schwa}), cerebrotonic personality or characteristics.

1937 A. HUXLEY Ends & Means xi. 165 Dr. William Sheldon, whose classification [of types of human beings] in terms of somatotonic, viscerotonic and cerebrotonic I shall use. Ibid. xii. 193 The cerebrotonic is not such a ‘good mixer’ as the viscerotonic. 1940 W. H. SHELDON Var. Human Physique 8 In the economy of the cerebrotonic individual the sensory and central nervous systems appear to play dominant roles. 1945 A. HUXLEY Let. 2 Apr. (1969) 517 There was just enough of the somatotonic in his..cerebrotonic make-up to make him regret his cerebrotonia. 1950 {emem} Themes & Var. i. 121 Too secretively the introvert, too inhibitedly cerebrotonic, to be willing to take the risk of ‘giving himself away’. 1951 AUDEN Nones (1952) 28 Cerebrotonic Cato may Extol the Ancient Disciplines. 1954 R. FULLER Fantasy & Fugue iv. 75 You..unfortunately incline to the cerebrotonic ectomorph{em}you worry too much, you're too good looking, and you can't abandon yourself happily to booze.

The other blog post? Momus' Celebrating diversity means measuring difference. Momus writes about William Sheldon:

I discovered his writings when I was 20, and trying to understand my own problems and potentialities better. Sheldon proposed what seems at first like a very simple way to measure body types. He isolates three basic components: fatness, muscularity and thinness, which he calls endomorphy, mesomorphy and ectomorphy. … "Ectomorphy means linearity, fragility, flatness of the chest, and delicacy throughout the body," he wrote. "We find a relatively scant development of both the visceral and the somatic structures. The ectomorph has long, slender, poorly muscled extremities with delicate pipe-stem bones, and he has, relative to his mass, the greatest surface area and therefore the greatest sensory exposure to the outside world. He is thus in one sense overly exposed and naked to the world." …

I'm a classic ectomorph, which means that by temperament I'm a cerebrotonic. In ectomorph-cerebrotonics, "the sensory-receptor properties are well developed. As a consequence however the central nervous system (CNS) is soon overloaded and rapidly tires. The cerebrotonic has the gift of concentrating his attention on the external world as well as on his internal world. His vigilance and autonomic reactivity make him behave in an inhibited and uncertain way: introverted behaviour. He has problems with expressing his feelings and with establishing social relationships, and can very well bear to be alone. The elementary strategies of coping with life are perception, reconnaissance and vigilance, cognition and anticipation, and a certain amount of privacy." …

Personally, I like people who structure the world boldly, especially if their structurations ring true. I don't take any structuration as holy writ, though -- I like to play with them, snap them together and pull them apart. But I also like it when structurations make for lovely poetry. The way Sheldon describes the ectomorph has a behaviourist beauty, a 1940s severity. He has "a relative predominance of skin and its appendages, which includes the nervous system; lean, fragile, delicate body; small delicate bones; droopy shoulders; small face, sharp nose, fine hair; relatively little body mass and relatively great surface area".

"The cerebrotonic may be literate or illiterate," says Sheldon, "may be trained or untrained in the conventional intellectual exercises of his milieu, may be an avid reader or may never read a book, may be a scholastic genius or may have failed in every sort of schooling. He may be a dreamer, a poet, philosopher, recluse, or builder of utopias and of abstract psychologies. He may be a schizoid personality, a religious fanatic, an ascetic, a patient martyr, or a contentious crusader. All these things depend upon the intermixture of other components, upon other variables in the symphony, and also upon the environmental pressures to which the personality has been exposed. The essential characteristic of the cerebrotonic is his acuteness of attention. The other two major functions, the direct visceral and the direct somatic functions, are subjugated, held in check, and rendered secondary. The cerebrotonic eats and exercises to attend."

I know next to nothing about Sheldon and need to go back to Momus and read it all again. John Fuller, in his W H Auden: A Commentary, says only this apropos 'The Fall of Rome' and 'cerebrotonic':

Stanza 4: Auden was inclined to prefer the endomorphic type to either the ectomorphic ('Cerebrotonic Cato') or the mesomorphic ('muscle-bound Marines'). The typology is from W H Sheldon.

Momus, quoting Sheldon on endomorphs and mesomorphs:

For comparison, in endomorphs "The body is rounded and exhibits a central concentration of mass. The trunk predominates over the limbs, the abdomen over the thorax, and the proximal segments of the limbs predominate over the distal segments. The bones are gracile and the muscle system is poorly developed. Muscle relief and bone projections are absent. The body displays a smoothness of contour owing to subcutaneous padding. The head is large and spherical, the face is wide with full cheeks. The neck is frequently short and forms in side view an obtuse angle with the chin. The shoulders are high and rounded. The trunk is relatively long and straight, the chest is wide at the base. The limbs are comparatively short and tapering with small hands and feet."

"When mesomorphy predominates, the body is sturdy, hard and firm. The bones are large and heavy, the muscles well-developed, massive and prominent. The heavily muscled thorax predominates over the abdomen. The proximal and distal segments of the limbs are evenly proportioned. The bones of the head are heavy. The face is large in relation to the cranial part of the head. Massive cheekbones and square jaws are the rule. The arms and legs are uniformly massive and muscular, strongly built knees, massive wrists."

Ah, classificatory schema: they have their own fascination

Oh, and one other gem from Momus:

Interestingly, Sheldon met and befriended Aldous Huxley during a residence at a writers and artists' refuge at Dartington Hall in Devon, England. Huxley also recognized himself as an ectomorph and cerebrotonic, and saw it as a limitation …

(Have another look at the clip from the OED above. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could overlay the OED with transfers of social and intellectual relationships? … Hey OUP, open up the OED!) You'll have to click through to iMomus to hear what Huxley had to say.

Poetry, ubicomp and the irreducible, various messiness of the world

From Tom Hume's notes on Fabien Girardin's LIFT07 talk:

The world is messy. … "Seamful design" seeks to reveal the limits, boundaries and uncertainties of ubicomp: reveals the seams. … Seamlessness is the exception: messiness can't be ignored, we need to design technologies with this in mind. Do we really want to live in a calm world?

Jan Chipchase's Future Perfect is amongst my most preferred blogs and I have seen students interested in design light up when they are introduced to it. As Adam Greenfield puts it:

Jan Chipchase’s work is all about surprise. Every time I visit his site I feel that anew, tripped up and humbled by humanity, in all its ingenuity, adaptability and ungovernable particularity.

All of which put into my mind another poet whose centenary falls this year (12 September), Louis MacNeice. Close friend of Auden and, as Grey Gowrie put it on Wednesday, 'lover of women and Donegal', MacNeice died at just 56.

The poem that I am thinking of is, of course, 'Snow' (January, 1935):

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Hug a shady wet nun

Auden: 'unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day, I feel ill' 

Wednesday night I was at the British Library (Shaw Theatre) for the W H Auden centenary reading on the anniversary of his birth. Among the poets, indeed — a good evening. The running order:

  • John Fuller: 'Get There If You Can' (1930); 'The Sphinx' (1938); Miranda's Song (from The Sea and the Mirror) (1942–44). 
  • Peter Porter: 'At Last the Secret Is Out' (1936); 'Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads' (1940); 'Now the Leaves Are Falling Fast' (1936); 'Under Sirius' (1949). 
  • James Fenton: 'Night Covers Up the Rigid Land' (1936); 'Death's Echo' (1936); 'September 1, 1939' (1939). 
  • Sean O'Brien: 'The Composer' (1938); 'The Fall of Rome' (1947); 'The Shield of Achilles' (1952). 
  • Richard Howard: 'On the Circuit' (1963); 'Auden in Milwaukee' (by Stephen Spender) (1940); 'A Walk After Dark' (1948). 
  • Grey Gowrie: 'Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly' (1948); 'In Praise of Limestone' (1948). 
  • Andrew Motion: 'O Love, the Interest Itself in Thoughtless Heaven' (1932); Preface: The Stage Manager to the Critics (from The Sea and the Mirror) (1942–4); 'Lullaby' (1937).

Twenty poems by Auden, then, and of these ten are from the 1930s. Five come from Nones (1951), Auden's first post-war collection of shorter poems ('Under Sirius', 'The Fall of Rome', 'A Walk After Dark', 'Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly' and 'In Praise of Limestone'), and just two, I think ('The Shield of Achilles' and 'On the Circuit'), from the last six collections (omitting Academic Graffiti) — The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), About the House (1965), City Without Walls (1969), Epistle to a Godson (1972) and the posthumous Thank You, Fog (1974). The status of the later poetry is, of course, much discussed, and it is probably the case that we have been too close to it to judge it well. Now, though, a new phase in the interpretation and appreciation of Auden may be beginning. Adam Kirsch wrote a good piece in the NY Sun (via 3quarksdaily), part of which touches on this:

Starting in the early 1940s … Auden developed a very different conception of poetry and its purpose. He began to write about the personal, instead of the public; the spiritual, instead of the political. In style, too, he changed drastically. In place of the elliptical shocks of the early poems, he cultivated a new style, one that combined the hyper-articulate and the campily laid-back. … In place of the private mythos of the early work, Auden now turns to the well-worn figures of Greek and Roman myth. And his tone of voice, even when he is not half-joking as he is here, often comes across as not quite serious, as though all his eloquence were just an ultracivilized game.

So great were these changes that it became necessary to talk about Auden as though he were two poets. … Such striking changes led many of Auden's early admirers to see the evolution of his work as a mere decline. … If the Auden centenary sees any major change in the poet's reputation, it is that such a dismissal of the later, American Auden now looks definitely mistaken. It is still tempting, reading Auden's work chronologically, to regret some of the changes that came in the train of his emigration, and to wonder what poems he might have written if he had stayed in England during World War II. The later Auden will never be as mesmerizing as the early Auden. But it is now clear that he was not, like Wordsworth, a poet who wrote himself out early but still kept on publishing. Rather, Auden's breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision — with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice — was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.

James Fenton read particularly well (his Guardian tribute to Auden can be read here and there are four paragraphs by him here that are worth reading): 'Death's Echo' is a fine poem and 'September 1, 1939', which might have worked so awkwardly given both all that has been written or said about it and how it has been used, was luminous and, to my mind, unquestionably compelling. Sean O'Brien introduced 'The Fall of Rome' as the most influential poem of the later twentieth century — measured, that is, by the number of attempts poets have made to re-write it.

The last poem of the evening, 'Lullaby' ('Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm'), moved me to tears: a popular poem, but I've never heard it read in public before and it is the poem I could not get out of my mind at the end of the week when my father was dying in September, 2004. He looked dreadful and, as I stared at his wasted face (we had never been closer: he had lost all power of speech but we had never communicated so well as in those last few days together), all I could hear in my head was, 'Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful'. To be moved like this, and to be so surprised, was as powerful and personal a reminder as I could imagine of how deeply affecting Auden's poetry can be.

Charles Madge, founder of Mass Observation and a poet, too, wrote in 'Letter to the Intelligentsia' (1933; quoted here):

But there waited for me in the summer morning,
Auden, fiercely. I read, shuddered and knew
And all the world’s stationary things
In silence moved to take up new positions.


Why 'hug a shady wet nun'? (Why? Why?) Here's the answer in the Guardian leader for 21 February, In Praise of … W H Auden:

… as he gleefully pointed out, his name was an anagram of "hug a shady wet nun" …


Free copies of the TLS for 9 February were available in the Shaw Theatre and Nicholas Jenkins' long essay on Auden covers a lot of ground. (He devotes a sizeable chunk of his essay to the background of 'Lay your sleeping head, my love'. Michael Yates was the 13 year-old schoolboy with whom the 26 year-old Auden fell in love in 1933, and the role W B Yeats' poem, 'A Prayer for My Son', plays in Auden's poem is teased out by Jenkins: 'The identity of the sleeper in Auden's poem had to remain veiled; but the love that dared not speak its beloved's name in 1937 could at last whisper it through the language of parallelism and allusion'. Yeats' poem is addressed to his son, Michael.)

Auden's was a colossal talent: his poetry apart, the prose writings continue to command our attention — he is a great critic and a polymath in scope — and then there is his work as a librettist and translator. Wikipedia (this is the archived page the W H Auden Society prefers): 

Auden published about four hundred poems, including seven long poems (two of them book-length). His poetry was encyclopedic in scope and method, ranging in style from obscure twentieth-century modernism to the lucid traditional forms such as ballads and limericks, from doggerel through haiku and villanelles to a "Christmas Oratorio" and a baroque eclogue in Anglo-Saxon meters. The tone and content of his poems ranged the pop-song clichés to complex philosophical meditations, from the corns on his toes to atoms and stars, from contemporary crises to the evolution of society.

He also wrote more than four hundred essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion, and many other subjects. He collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood and on opera libretti with Chester Kallman, worked with a group of artists and filmmakers on documentary films in the 1930s and with the New York Pro Musica early music group in the 1950s and 1960s. About collaboration he wrote in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had".

Nicholas Jenkins' essay is wary of any easy, panoptic view of Auden, but in surveying the range of Auden's work Jenkins stirs up much to go on thinking about. This is a typically careful couple of sentences about Auden's prose writing: 'The prose as a whole is remarkable, full of fresh ideas and commanding yet eccentric speculations and intuitions. When it becomes readily accessible in its full extent, it will surely alter preconceptions about Auden'. I liked this quotation from a letter Auden wrote to his father in 1939 (his father had written to say that he preferred Wystan's old poems to the new): 'The writer's problem is that of everyone: how to go on growing the whole of his life, because to stop growing is to die'; and this, to a New York audience in 1946 (talking about Shakespeare): 'a major poet is always willing to risk failure, to look for a new rhetoric'. Jenkins is also good on Auden 'the poet of a deliberately willed uprootedness; he turned himself into the first great poet of that most symptomatic of all social groups in the modern world: those who will not or cannot go home'. 'He made twenty-nine separate journeys that lasted more than two months; twenty-six of those lasted more than five months, blurring the meaning, especially in his later years, of home and abroad, domestic and foreign, here and there. In addition, Auden's homosexuality helped to enforce the social mobility and unpredictability which he thought essential to his freedom as a writer.'

To end on, 'The Fall of Rome':

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
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.

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