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Lay your sleeping head, my love -- W H Auden

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #307) Lay your sleeping head, my love
  Lay your sleeping head, my love,
  Human on my faithless arm;
  Time and fevers burn away
  Individual beauty from
  Thoughtful children, and the grave
  Proves the child ephemeral:
  But in my arms till break of day
  Let the living creature lie,
  Mortal, guilty, but to me
  The entirely beautiful.

  Soul and body have no bounds:
  To lovers as they lie upon
  Her tolerant enchanted slope
  In their ordinary swoon,
  Grave the vision Venus sends
  Of supernatural sympathy,
  Universal love and hope;
  While an abstract insight wakes
  Among the glaciers and the rocks
  The hermit's sensual ecstasy.

  Certainty, fidelity
  On the stroke of midnight pass
  Like vibrations of a bell,
  And fashionable madmen raise
  Their pedantic boring cry:
  Every farthing of the cost,
  All the dreaded cards foretell,
  Shall be paid, but from this night
  Not a whisper, not a thought,
  Not a kiss nor look be lost.

  Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
  Let the winds of dawn that blow
  Softly round your dreaming head
  Such a day of sweetness show
  Eye and knocking heart may bless,
  Find the mortal world enough;
  Noons of dryness see you fed
  By the involuntary powers,
  Nights of insult let you pass
  Watched by every human love.
-- W H Auden
Abraham has made some sniffy comments recently about Auden, and suggested
that if we want more Auden we could put him in through the Sunday poems.
Well, obviously I can't resist that challenge lying, so here's one of his
best.

In a way though I can understand what Abraham says when he says that he just
doesn't get Auden. I think its true that Auden hasn't written the sort of
poems one can simply love and remember and keep repeating to yourself. There
is not much delight in Auden's poems. Instead they are full of a troubled
intelligence, unease, ambiguity, sadness and a sense of anguish at the
frailty of things. The above poem sums this up in the first two lines: "Lay
your sleeping head, my love,/Human on my faithless arm..." Auden is
illusionless about love, but that doesn't stop him from being fully,
painfully, aware of its beauty and tenderness.

Auden, its often been said, was perhaps the first really modern poet. He was
not a "Modern" poet like Eliot and Pound, experimenting with forms, with
ideas and concepts. He was too human (as opposed to intellectual), too
romantic even for that. At the same time, he's not Romantic - if he had
idealism (which initially at least he did), it was never blind, and as time
and the Thirties took their toll his disillusioned intelligence grew, and
that's what give the later poems the full force of their understanding,
despair and yet some sort of hope in the beauty of things, and also in a
religious feeling of sorts. When you read Auden its not for the beauty of
the poems, but because you know that here is a poet who really reflects the
way you think.

Auden's modernity, rather than Modernity, also comes through in the
technical aspect of the poems. Auden's technical skills are awesome. He's a
rebuke to all those people who imagine that they can just churn out
something and call it poetry. His skills are rarely ostentatious, but are
always there. This is the poet as a craftsman, each poem finely, but
unobtrusively turned. He also has a matchless way with phrases - Auden's
lines feel so _right_, his phrases not polished and beautiful, but exactly
correct. You know without thinking, often without understanding, that these
are _real_ poems. And while he can do free verse as well as the Modernists,
I think the humanity and the ability to communicate with people that he had,
made him aware that sometimes the formal poetic forms - ballads, sonnets,
quatrains, rhymes - work best.

There have been better and greater poets this century, however you choose to
judge these criteria. Yet Auden, I think, remains the one most
representative of it.

Vikram

[And a quick comment from me - while I don't have much to say about the poem
as a whole, the first two lines rank high on my list of immortal openings.
There is something about the prase 'human on my faithless arm' that is, as
Vikram put it, _right_. - m.]

29 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

victoria stapf said...

The illusionlessness of this poem is its beauty. The
awareness of the deep imperfections of the lovers, one
"faithless," the other "mortal, guilty" and yet deeply
tender, gentle, loving. This isn't the love of fairy
tales, but a much more human experience.

Graham McKerrow said...

I have loved this poem for more that 35 years and I'm still finding
new depths and meaning in it - how clever is that of Auden to write a
poem that grabs your attention with its phrases and mood and can
accompany you throughout life as an ever-developing commentary on
emotions, relationships and the world we know? Thank you, WH!

Anonymous said...

I don't get it.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

I don't agree that there have been better or greater poets this century. None, however much they tried or reacted against him, matched the power of his poetry.

Perry said...

Yeats? Eliot?

Любомир said...

Speaking of Auden's subtle and sophisticated Romanticism, this poem lends itself to comparison with Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be".
Both are on my top 100 list.

Anonymous said...

I adore this poem. It is just so well written. Auden just writes the most amazing poetry so full of dept and just so easy to read

Anonymous said...

i dont understand it :/ help?

Anonymous said...

Listen to the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble. In their Jazz album "Restored, Returned" they interpret four of W.H. Auden's poems, including "Lay your sleeping head, my love". Listening to the songs gave me a quite an emotional trip. Really fantastic!

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Corey Fischer said...

Thanks for posting this remarkable poem!

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countingducks said...

I loved this poem all my life. The older it gets, the more it resonates

Anonymous said...

He is describing to his lover, the nature of love, its glories and pitfalls.

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