Monday, September 23, 2013

`The Happy Eachness of All Things'

Sometimes a line or two will shine from the dimness of an otherwise undistinguished poem. Much of Auden’s later verse was occasional, prompted by a births, deaths, weddings or commencements. In his final decade, he wrote poems about the assassination of President Kennedy and man’s first walk on the moon. By definition, this is public poetry, prompted by a public occasion but also implying a pronouncement not hermetic but cheerfully accessible, open to a large intelligent audience, not merely academics or fellow poets. Auden is a fluent master of this mode. “Prologue at Sixty” was published on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in 1967, in the New York Review of Books, and collected in City Without Walls (1969). In book form, the poem is dedicated to Friedrich Heer (1916-1983), the Austrian historian. It’s conversational, digressive, the talk of a charming, thoughtful witty man on the cusp of old age. These lines illuminate the rest for me:

“a Mind of Honor must acknowledge
the happy eachness of all things,
distinguish even from odd numbers,
and bear witness to what-is-the-case.”

“Happy eachness” is a memorable fine, typical of Auden’s late sense of gratitude for creation, despite human foolishness and cruelty. One of his best interpreters, Arthur Kirsch, writes of the poet’s late manner in Auden and Christianity (2005): “He becomes more interested in forgiveness, thankfulness, and prayer.” Born on Feb. 21, 1907, Auden died forty years ago this week, on Sept. 29, 1973. An old friend, now a professor of English in Pennsylvania, came downstairs to tell me of Auden’s death, and I remember there were tears in his eyes.

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