‘Thank You, Fog’

“My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,” quipped W.H. Auden. Indeed, by the age of 60, Auden’s face looked like the most-read library book in the most popular library; it exhausted any adjectives thrown at it—it was its own adjective. His friend Hannah Arendt said he looked “as if life itself had delineated a kind of face-scape to make manifest the ‘heart’s invisible furies.'”

According to one biographer, Auden suffered from something called Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome,

in which the skin of the forehead, face, scalp, hands and feet becomes thick and furrowed and peripheral periostitis in the bones reduces the patient’s capacity for activity. There [is] no therapy for the syndrome, which does not affect either life expectancy or mental status, but which account[s] for Auden’s striking appearance of grave, lined melancholy.— “Auden,” Richard Davenport-Hines


W.H. Auden

Auden probably had never heard of TSG syndrome so he may not have known that his rapid aging was the result of anything other than how he was living his life. It was a life lived in a cloud of cigarette smoke and almost continuous writing. Fueled by amphetamines, which he believed made him more productive, he certainly was productive: four hundred poems (many very long), almost the same number of essays and book reviews, several verse plays, and all written between the mid-1920s and his death in September 1973. At night, to bring that constantly working mind to some static place, he took sleeping pills and drank.

Towards the end, in May 1973, he wrote what may be his last loved poem, “Thank You, Fog.” He had lived in New York for decades and “Grown used to New York weather” and was “all too familiar with Smog.” Fog is unnamed until the end, the final word of the last line, but her name is knowable: Fog is smog’s “unsullied sister,” and years away had allowed the poet to forget “what/You bring to British winters.”

Auden in winter is a poet of few, but precious, loves: company and coziness. Fog brings both as he is kept in, with friends, for a week at Christmas. No birds outside, no outside, just friends doing crosswords and paying no mind to worldly concerns. The outside world, where one “minds one’s p’s and q’s,” only interrupts the proceedings in the form of the “Daily Papers,/vomiting in slip-shod prose/the facts of filth and violence/that we’re too dumb to present:/our earth’s a sorry spot.”

Warm by the fire, warmed by the company of friends, cozy. Aware that the earth’s a sorry spot, but unmoved by this for the moment, as coziness and comfort can sometimes trump it all. It is a cat dozing by a fireplace of a poem, and like a cat, it has claws: Who is the poet thanking? “No summer sun will ever/dismantle the global gloom.” (Ever? Ever.) “Thank you, Fog.”

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It is a rainy, gray November afternoon in upstate New York today, in which the light remains dim from dawn till after dusk; what color there is is colors that were: expired leaves lingering on branches, uncollected rakings shoved into the roads. Autumnal Auden comes to mind.

Thank You, Fog by W.H. Auden
Grown used to New York weather,
all too familiar with Smog,
You, Her unsullied Sister,
I’d quite forgotten and what
You bring to British winters:
now native knowledge returns.

Sworn foe to festination,
daunter of drivers and planes,
volants, of course, will cause You,
but how delighted I am
that You’ve been lured to visit
Wiltshire’s witching countryside
for a whole week at Christmas,
that no one can scurry where
my cosmos is contracted
to an ancient manor-house
and four Selves, joined in friendship,
Jimmy, Tania, Sonia, Me.

Outdoors a shapeless silence,
for even then birds whose blood
is brisk enough to bid them
abide here all the year round,
like the merle and the mavis,
at Your cajoling refrain
their jocund interjections,
no cock considers a scream,
vaguely visible, tree-tops
rustle not but stay there, so
efficiently condensing
Your damp to definite drops.

Indoors specific spaces,
cosy, accommodate to
reminiscence and reading,
crosswords, affinities, fun:
refected by a sapid
supper and regaled by wine,
we sit in a glad circle,
each unaware of our own
nose but alert to the others,
making the most of it, for
how soon we must re-enter,
when lenient days are done,
the world of the work and money
and minding our p’s and q’s.

No summer sun will ever
dismantle the global gloom
cast by the Daily Papers,
vomiting in slip-shod prose
the facts of filth and violence
that we’re too dumb to present:
our earth’s a sorry spot, but
for this special interim,
so restful yet so festive,
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 6 asks, “Someone or something you can’t communicate with through writing (a baby, a pet, an object) can understand every single word you write today, for one day only. What do you tell them?”

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‘The Way’

At one point in “The Quest,” his modernist version of a quest romance told in 20 sonnets, the poet W.H. Auden derides occult fascinations as “an architecture for the odd.”

The particular sonnet, which in some editions is titled “The Tower,” but in Auden’s official Collected Poems is simply called number “IX,” concludes with a warning from magicians caught in their own tower:

Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:

Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.

Contemporary pop astrology is one of those towers, as Auden might call it. The zodiac is a carving up of the night sky according to real geometry, with each of the twelve signs occupying a perfect 30°, which lends it a mathematical credibility and grounds it in things we might consider “real.” Pop astrology is not real. Once upon a time, the zodiac was a coordinate system grounding observers in a spot on the earth (if this star is in the sky at this angle I must be in Iowa) at a particular time at night (if this particular star is in the sky at this angle it must be autumn; further, it must be 1:00 a.m. Now, how did I wind up in Des Moines?) and so it was very useful. The sky was every traveler’s GPS. The zodiac was one way of reading it.

The belief that there is a connection between things happening on Earth and things happening in the night sky at the same time is such a seductive one that it has transcended human eras, societies, religions, and politics. Dictators and democrats alike have believed in auspicious and inauspicious times to begin initiatives or end policies. (Or lives.)

It is understandable that we humans would think of ourselves so non-humbly, that we would see ourselves not only as the conclusion to nature’s long eternal statement but that we would view ourselves as not merely a conclusion, a period mark, but as THE conclusion, an exclamation point. We are the one who knocks. We aren’t much, but we’re all we think about. In the universal scheme of things, however, humanity’s history may not even show up as a comma in eternity’s sentences.

And that is just fine. Nature or the Big You Know Who Upstairs granted us a wonderful gift, life, for no reason at all, which is the definition of grace.

The zodiac is as attractive as it is, even for those who recognize astrology as a human attempt to think like a god, because it contains and describes just about every human flaw and foible and positive attribute and success in such a compact container that it makes almost every human type seem predicted and even predictable. It appeals to writers for those same reasons, writers who were Jungian long before Jung existed. People born on November 18 (my birth date; it was a Monday, at dinnertime, 41.7000° N latitude) may carry with them certain tendencies and characteristics, or they may not, and the beautiful thing about astrology is that both of those statements—we may be similar and we may not be—are equally true. There is no need, or way, to add to such a comprehensive package.

In skies far from here, our sun might be a part of a constellation dictating zodiacal decisions on some other planet, in alien eyes wondering up at a night sky very different from and yet very similar to ours.

Sonnet number XIV of Auden’s cycle “The Quest” breaks with the previous chapters and their preoccupation with classical sonnet structures—Petrarchan, Shakespearian—and is written in a couplet form. It asks a question that is difficult for both skeptics and believers to answer: “[H]ow reliable can any truth be that is got/By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?” In some editions the poem is titled “The Way.”

Fresh addenda are published every day
To the encyclopedia of the Way,

Linguistic notes and scientific explanations,
And texts for schools with modernised spelling and illustrations.

Now everyone knows the hero must choose the old horse,
Abstain from liquor and sexual intercourse,

And look out for a stranded fish to be kind to:
Now everyone thinks he could find, had he a mind to,

The way through the waste to the chapel in the rock
For a vision of the Triple Rainbow or the Astral Clock,

Forgetting his information comes mostly from married men
Who liked fishing and a flutter on the horses now and then.

And how reliable can any truth be that is got
By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?
— W.H. Auden, XIV, “The Quest

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 28 asks, “You’re tasked with creating a brand new astrological sign for the people born around your birthday—based solely on yourself. What would your new sign be, and how would you describe those who share it?”

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A Streetlight

At once sarcastic and tender, W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” offers a night sky empty of stars:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
—”The More Loving One,” W.H. Auden, 1957

I might very well like a starless sky and call it sublime or subtle in its black-on-black nuance, the poet states, and I do not mourn the sight of a supernova, which is after all the explosive death of a star, and I may not notice the absence of one should it simply blink out, but in all matters, “If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.” In all matters attracting my human attention, be it the night sky or my partner’s dimples, let the more loving one be me.

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I did not know how much I love color as a perceptual reality until my spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) became symptomatic and walking became something that I had to concentrate on while doing.

At night, I started to experience something called “freezing of gait,” which I would also sometimes experience upon coming to a door. I understand it now, but for a couple of years, I experienced terror, simply because I did not understand what was happening. For most of us, walking is partly an improvisation in which the brain perceives differences in the environment—the room on the other side of the doorway, a nearby divot in the field, a slope—and reacts quickly, without thought. The walker changes course, or almost stumbles and pops back up, or stumbles and gets back up. The feet adjust.

The walker with a neuromuscular condition such as an ataxia or a spinal cord injury or SMA has to “think” his or her walking; it is a process of planning a step and executing it and then repeating it, starting with the thought. Each stride has at least two parts to it, and one of them is conscious thought. “Leg: Move.” All of the information the world presents to a “normal” walker with good eyesight is processed silently and rapidly, and the walker walks. When I was first affected by SMA, all of the same information threw me into a freezing of gait response: every doorway to the outdoors presented me with too much information; the world of the outdoors at night was worse with its absence of information. It was a living nightmare and at least now I usually have such nightmares only when asleep.

The night, though. Every so often I still have the freezing moments: at night, with its gift of the absence of color, that huge absence of information. Streetlights cast shadows that appear as chasms, and then my oh-so-ginger step across reveals a half-inch drop. An actual dangerous break in a sidewalk, but a well-illuminated one, may look flat and safe and result in a fall.

It is the nighttime’s lack of color, color which the brain uses to notice spots at which I need to make changes about my next step, that freeze me. I thought I was alone in this, but I am not; “freezing of gait” is not my expression and is a common phrase—when I first read it, I almost cried because I recognized the description and I finally knew I was not alone.

The idea in Auden’s poem probably meant little to me when I first read it years ago. A starless sky? Okay, I can imagine that. But other than the word “Love” in the title, how is this a love poem? “Let me be the more loved,” could have been my personal motto. Give me more presents than I give you and let’s call today good. Love something that can not love me back? I never owned a pet rock. “Let the more loving one be me”? Pshaw.

Blue does not know it is “blue,” and green does not know how many examples and variations it offers. They need perceivers, and that simple fact of perception is Auden’s “love”; for me, I love the varieties of shades and nuances of color, and so do my so-far unbroken legs and arms. I love my girlfriend’s dimples, too.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 26 asks, “Imagine we lived in a world that’s all of a sudden devoid of color, but where you’re given the option to have just one object keep its original hue. Which object (and which color) would that be?”

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Auden’s Decency

In the documentary, “Tell Me the Truth About Love,” W.H. Auden’s friend Thekla Clark recounts the story of one of Auden’s lovers complaining to him that he thought Auden would be more “romantic,” being a poet, after all. “But you aren’t romantic,” Clark quotes the lover telling the poet. “You aren’t romantic at all.”

“If you want romance,” Clark quotes Auden replying, “screw a journalist.” (Except she does not say “screw.”)

Auden was not one for ruining a good line—or a good night—by spending it explaining the difference between romance and sentimentality.

Auden’s poetry, often about love, derived from an almost clinical study of his own personal history and emotions. A professional poetic detachment yielded a poetry that was undisturbed by sentimentality. Yet Auden is also the least cynical and one of the most humane of the great poets.

One can not declare oneself humble. Humility and decency do not allow for advertising. The moment one discusses one’s virtues, one yields them. In the same documentary, “Tell Me the Truth About Love,” Auden tells the talk-show host Michael Parkinson that “a writer is a maker, not a man of action” so everything he writes is an autobiography, is his history of his experience transformed in his senses, and that, no, he would not be writing his memoirs. The autobiography of a man of action—a politician or general or activist—may be necessary to understand them.

(The clip starts around minute three. The documentary, which first aired on the BBC in 2000, is full of interviews with Auden and his circle. Once upon a time, talk shows featured literary figures; Michael Parkinson was the Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett of Britain, minus the jokes. Actually, Dick Cavett was the Parkinson of America.)

Auden learned the difference between a man of action and a maker early on, and he learned how tempting it could be to confuse the two. In the 1930s, while a young writer, he was made into a hero of the British left, and moved to America to reacquire his privacy. Edward Mendelson quotes Auden in “The Secret Auden,” in the current issue of the New York Review of Books: “I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring … . It is so exciting but so absolutely degrading; I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.”

By the 1960s, both his politics (left) and his religion (he returned to the Anglican Church of his youth in 1940) were publicly known, but he was no longer a speech maker and never was a proselytizer. From Mendelson’s article:

When he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue, he did so without calling attention to himself, and he was impatient with writers like Robert Lowell whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective. When he won the National Medal for Literature in 1967, he was unwilling either to accept it in Lyndon Johnson’s White House during the Vietnam War or “to make a Cal Lowell gesture by a public refusal,” so he arranged for the ceremony to be held at the Smithsonian, where he gave an acceptance speech about the corruption of language by politics and propaganda.”—The Secret Auden,”

To accept an award from one’s adopted country and relocate the ceremony from the heart of power to the nation’s museum, and then to turn the ceremony into a lecture about corruption is, when available, a different sort of bravery than an attempt to make one’s absence into a loud presence.

Edward Mendelson is Auden’s literary executor, and in the New York Review article, he reveals that he is still learning of some of Auden’s acts of decency, 40 years after the poet’s death. Charities he quietly funded, a manuscript donated for a sale to pay for a friend’s surgery, a prisoner who wrote him once and began a lifelong correspondence course in literature. Even the story of a woman from his congregation in Manhattan who “was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.”

There is even this story, revealed last year in a letter to the Times of London:

Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left to flounder. I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself. Auden must have sensed this because he approached me and said, “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff too.”

Auden knew, Mendelson writes, that good and evil exist, but that human beings fall on a spectrum between the two. Most are not evil people attempting to be saintly but good people striving to become better. There “are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.” When one’s nation declares itself a force for good in the world, maybe one should make sure the passport is up-to-date. Auden once wrote, “Many a sore bottom finds/A sorer one to kick.”

We do not practice what we thoroughly possess. We say we “practice” kindness because we do not possess it, not to the degree that makes us kind. We practice love because we are not loving but can always be more so. The humble acts of decency and kindness may not change the universe, but they may change an individual’s universe. In the often misquoted line from his amused and amusing 1957 poem, “The More Loving One,” Auden says, “If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.”

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Mendelson mentions Thekla Clark in his New York Review article, in one more anecdote about Auden’s quiet defense of doing the right thing, and adds that he learned of this “in a documentary film, ‘Wystan: The Life, Love and Death of a Poet,’ by Michael Buergermeister, which had its premiere in Oxford last year.” It is the only mention I have found of this documentary. On Buergermeister’s own website, only this trailer for the film appears:

It is tantalizing.