(Poem #1311) Just a Smack at Auden
Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end. What is there to be or do? What's become of me or you? Are we kind or are we true? Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end. Shall I build a tower, boys, knowing it will rend Crack upon the hour, boys, waiting for the end? Shall I pluck a flower, boys, shall I save or spend? All turns sour, boys, waiting for the end. Shall I send a wire, boys? Where is there to send? All are under fire, boys, waiting for the end. Shall I turn a sire, boys? Shall I choose a friend? The fat is in the pyre, boys, waiting for the end. Shall I make it clear, boys, for all to apprehend, Those that will not hear, boys, waiting for the end, Knowing it is near, boys, trying to pretend, Sitting in cold fear, boys, waiting for the end? Shall we send a cable, boys, accurately penned, Knowing we are able, boys, waiting for the end, Via the Tower of Babel, boys? Christ will not ascend. He's hiding in his stable, boys, waiting for the end. Shall we blow a bubble, boys, glittering to distend, Hiding from our trouble, boys, waiting for the end? When you build on rubble, boys, Nature will append Double and re-double, boys, waiting for the end. Shall we make a tale, boys, that things are sure to mend, Playing bluff and hale, boys, waiting for the end? It will be born stale, boys, stinking to offend, Dying ere it fail, boys, waiting for the end. Shall we go all wild, boys, waste and make them lend, Playing at the child, boys, waiting for the end? It has all been filed, boys, history has a trend, Each of us enisled, boys, waiting for the end. What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end. Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend, Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end. Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end. Not a chance of blend, boys, things have got to tend. Think of those who vend, boys, think of how we wend, Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
While I enjoy Auden's poetry very much , I can't deny that he's very easy to criticize. His poems often seem too glib, too easy; there's always the nagging feeling that behind the perfect construction and beguiling rhythms there's (whisper it!) not a lot of depth. The Emperor, we suspect, has no clothes. The Empson, on the other hand, is usually so swaddled in robes of learning and sophistication that he's lost to the general view. His poetry is erudite, complex, and subtle. While he can -- and often does -- exhibit the same command of prosody that characterizes Auden, he equally often chooses to build dense layers of meaning into his every word, until his poems become puzzles for the reader and the critic to solve. They're nowhere near as accessible as Auden's finest works; indeed, they don't even try to be. It's no surprise, then, that Auden was the most popular poet of the 20th century, while Empson remains obscure and cultish. Did it rankle? I'm not sure. Empson was certainly idealistic enough not to care overmuch about the comparison, but there are times (especially when reading today's poem) when one senses a definite hint of "I can do everything Auden does, but I choose not to" in his work. It's the classic opposition of depth and width: Empson champions the former quality, but acknowledges (even while parodying it) the power of the latter. All analysis apart, I do love the way today's poem skewers Auden's style. It's all there: the use of a refrain, the slightly condescending tone allied with indecisiveness and moral drift, the repetition which seems poised at any moment to descend into gibberish, the sheer _banality_ of it all. Beautiful, simply beautiful. thomas.  It was not always thus. See the commentary to Poem #677. [On Empson and the Cambridge poets] .. [the] Elizabethan-Metaphysical fashion naturally dominated the next period of 'Cambridge poetry' and marked it off sharply, at any rate in style, from the Georgians. Its most characteristic writer was beyond any doubt William Empson. His poetry has even less of the superficial local colouring than that of Brooke ... But in all other ways he seemed, at the time (and in retrospect too) to be exactly and admirably the expression of the time, as well as being almost violently himself. The literary atmosphere was set chiefly by I.A. Richards, whose lectures on practical criticism were drawing vast, almost evangelical audiences and educating them in the reading of 'difficult' poetry, in the understanding of images in which intellectual and emotive elements were fused. Empson was able to give this fashion a creative turn, partly because he just happened to be able to do it, but partly, perhaps, because he had read mathematics (very creditably) before he took the English Tripos. 'Long words' and scientific notions that others had to garner carefully and consciously for their images to him came entirely naturally: they were familiar to him not merely because he wanted to use them in poetry - he used them because they were already familiar. And the impact of his poetry was strengthened by his criticism, for preliminary studies of the book that later came out as Seven Types of Ambiguity were being published in the same magazines that published his poetry. Taken together, they established a powerful and coherent, if limited, literary position. So much was clear on the surface. But there were deeper resonances with the spirit of the place and age that escaped notice, because he himself played them down, partly from what looked like a fastidious sense of intellectual privacy, partly through a habit of irony often carried to the point of mannerism. But he was, after all, President of the Heretics, the Cambridge society that most obviously embodied the radical-rationalist tradition of the pre-war days. By training and intellectual capacity, moreover, he was aware, in a much less dilettante manner than most of his contemporaries, of the fact that G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein were lecturing in the University, as well as I.A. Richards. So that both his poetry and his criticism, though almost deceptively purely 'literary', moved in a real intellectual and moral world, clearly grasped, even when the grasp was ironically concealed. The most obvious outward sign of a serious concern for the conduct of life was his capacity for mordant social observation, for pin-pointing the more significant quirks and follies of human behaviour. And closely allied with this was a superb command of colloquial English, so that among the 'difficult' lines and the scientific images there were astonishing pieces of simply musical writing. -- Hugh Sykes Davis, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/hsd-camb-po.html [On today's poem] A fine example of political double-talk is given in Just a Smack at Auden, in which William Empson emulates the authoritarian tone of Auden's The Orators. Empson's speaker addresses his listeners 'boys,' and in spite of his autocratic tone, he asks 'the boys' numerous banal questions that show speaker's indecision, for example: 'Shall I pluck a flower, boys,/ Shall I save or spend?' This aspect of the poem is another textual reference, this time our scope of reading Just a Smack at Auden is broadened by T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in which the speaker assumes an authoritarian tone by stating at the beginning: 'Let us go then, you and I,' and then asks his reader a number of prosaic questions that resemble Empson's lyric even in the regularity of the rhythmic, iambic verse. As he says for example: 'Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?' Both poems stress the inability of a self to make a decision, or judge reasonably in the modern society; notwithstanding whether one is a leader or a commonplace man like Alfred Prufrock, they are exiles in a society that lacks domesticity. -- Marek Helman, http://maras5.tripod.com/