Sunday, February 21, 2016

`Who We Really Are'

David, the youngest of my three sons, turns thirteen today. I suspect this birthday and, with it, his overnight transformation into a “teenager,” is more linguistic and cultural than biological, and that the event is less significant now than when I turned that corner in 1965. I was scared and elated. David is blasé. He knows more about the world – the good and the ugly – than I knew when turning twenty-one. He is cleverer, more morally discerning, more skeptical, more musical and more fun than I was at that age. He also has the good fortune to share a birth date with W.H. Auden (I’m stuck with Hillary Clinton), born on Feb. 21 in 1907. At thirteen, David’s age, Auden enrolled in Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where he wrote his first poems.
In 1942, Auden wrote “Many Happy Returns,” dedicated to John Rettger, the son of the poet’s friends in Ann Arbor., Mich., who was celebrating his seventh birthday. Auden was a master of occasional poems, written to mark rites of passage in the lives of friends. If not his finest work, they are never less than thoughtful and witty – in their original context, superb gifts. Here is the third stanza, a suitable gift for the always-performing David:
“So I wish you first a
Sense of theatre; only
Those who love illusion
And know it will go far:
Otherwise we spend our
Lives in a confusion
Of what we say and do with
Who we really are.”
I can’t pretend to think my sons will inherit a finer world than the one given my generation. No, we botched what was already a thoroughgoing botch. A new Dark Ages looms. Auden encourages his seven-year-old to “combine / Intellectual talents / With a sensual gusto, / The Socratic Doubt with / The Socratic Sign.”

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