Friday, August 02, 2013

Five minutes on even the nicest mountain is awfully long


Winds, Woods, Mountains, Lakes, Islands, Plains and Streams: each are addressed in turn in W. H. Auden's 'Bucolics' (1953).  Glyn Maxwell, writing in 1994 (the year he was a New Generation Poet) thought them 'the supreme poems of a broad and balanced education in this century'. He appreciated the way Auden managed to generalise without abstracting and simplifying.  In 'Mountains', for example, which you can hear Auden read in the embedded clip above, he asks whether he must accept that the Lake District is merely a bourgeois invention like the piano.  But the reality of the landscape cannot be reduced to this.  'I wish I stood now on a platform at Penrith', he thinks - waiting for a local train and anticipating the moment when 'you smell peat or pinewood, you hear / your first waterfalls.'  'Mountains', as Maxwell says, touches on crime, farming and archaeology, as well as the relationship between geography and psychology, but concludes with something personal and idiosyncratic: 'For an uncatlike / creature who has gone wrong, / five minutes on even the nicest mountain / is awfully long.'

Piero di Cosimo, The Forest Fire, 1505

The second clip below is 'Woods', which begins in Piero di Cosimo's primal forest, where none of the creatures 'thought the lightning-kindled bush to tame / but, flabbergasted, fled the useful flame.'  That was before civilisation had taught them 'to abhor the license of the grove.'  Nowadays it can be said that 'the trees encountered on a country stroll / reveal a lot about that country's soul.'  The poem ends with what seems like a premonition of the disease that has lately infected our woods: 'a small grove massacred to the last ash...'  And so neither woods or mountains are places Auden feels fully comfortable in; indeed none of the landscapes in the central five poems 'really get his vote', as Maxwell puts it.  'Plains' fill him with horror, 'Islands' seem a place of joyless exile and 'Lakes' are for other people ('It is unlikely I shall ever keep a swan / or build a tower on any small tombolo').  It is only in the final section, 'Streams', that Auden seems to find peace and contentment.  'It is fitting.' Maxwell concludes, 'that he ends up by water, 'the aboriginal pilgrim, / at home in all sections', timeless and free yet chained like us to the actualities of gravity and stone.'

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