Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible. […] Poems about Good Friday have, of course, been written, but none of them will do.—W.H. Auden, “A Certain World”
Faith and the mysteries inherent to faith occupy much of Auden’s writing, but his Christianity is of the most practical sort: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” the most simple yet complicated commandment. His religious poetry often combines the beauty of ritual with the practicality of the everyday and the commonplace. His religious faith was not in a God that demands explanation or defense but was an expression of love for the exquisite grace that is life and the gift that is consciousness; that we have neighbors and we have love are mysteries enough worth the daily expression of gratitude.
In 1929, at age 22, Auden was living in Berlin, and he composed a poetic diary through the year. In the editions of his Collected Works that he organized, a poem entitled “1929” sits at the center of section two; he wrote that each separation of sections represented “a new chapter in my life.” Section Two was Berlin. He had not yet experienced the “Vision of Agape” that informed his life and his work, so religion and not faith were on his mind. Easter is spring and renewal, but it is also a time to “remember all of those whose death/ Is necessary condition of the season’s putting forth.” His Easter poem is the opening section of his “1929,” and bears a composition date at the end of April 1929. Auden did not often supply composition dates with his poems.
‘It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens’
It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens,
Hearing the frogs exhaling from the pond,
Watching traffic of magnificent cloud
Moving without anxiety on open sky—
Season when lovers and writers find
An altering speech for altering things,
An emphasis on new names, on the arm
A fresh hand with fresh power.
But thinking so I came at once
Where solitary man sat weeping on a bench,
Hanging his head down, with his mouth distorted
Helpless and ugly as an embryo chicken.
So I remember all of those whose death
Is necessary condition of the season’s putting forth,
Who, sorry in this time, look only back
To Christmas intimacy, a winter dialogue
Fading in silence, leaving them in tears.
And recent particulars come to mind;
The death by cancer of a once hated master,
A friend’s analysis of his own failure,
Listened to at intervals throughout the winter
At different hours and in different rooms.
But always with success of others for comparison,
The happiness, for instance, of my friend Kurt Groote,
Absence of fear in Gerhart Meyer
From the sea, the truly strong man.
A ‘bus ran home then, on the public ground
Lay fallen bicycles like huddled corpses:
No chattering valves of laughter emphasised
Nor the swept gown ends of a gesture stirred
The sessile hush; until a sudden shower
Fell willing into grass and closed the day,
Making choice seem a necessary error.—W.H. Auden, Collected Poems
It is Spring, and in Spring is every season. In Easter is every holiday and holy day. In the poet’s day are friends (in memory) as well as solitaries and that sensual concluding sound of a spring shower suddenly interrupting his active reverie.
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