WH Auden really produced some neat poems. In today’s offering “Ode to the Mediaeval Poets” he places himself in a poetic tradition going back 1000 years but adds an inventive twist to how we think about them in comparison with the moderns. Here it is.
Ode to the Medieval Poets
by W. H. Auden
Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar, with all your
brother Anons, how on earth did you ever manage,
without anaesthetics or plumbing,
in daily peril from witches, warlocks,
lepers, The Holy Office, foreign mercenaries
burning as they came, to write so cheerfully,
with no grimaces of self-pathos?
Long-winded you could be but not vulgar,
bawdy but not grubby, your raucous flytings
sheer high-spirited fun, whereas our makers,
beset by every creature comfort,
immune, they believe, to all superstitions,
even at their best are so often morose or
kinky, petrified by their gorgon egos.
We all ask, but I doubt if anyone
can really say why all age-groups should find our
Age quite so repulsive. Without its heartless
engines, though, you could not tenant my book-shelves,
on hand to delect my ear and chuckle
my sad flesh: I would gladly just now be
turning out verses to applaud a thundery
jovial June when the judas-tree is in blossom,
but am forbidden by the knowledge
that you would have wrought them so much better.
In this poem, Auden describes the conditions in which the mediaeval poets worked and the type of results they achieved. The mediaeval poets, according to Auden, were beset by plague, pestilence, persecution and primitive living conditions, to today’s eye, but produced works of joy and optimism. The moderns, in contrast, have all the advantages of today’s comforts and technology, but often produce pessimistic, morose, joyless poetry. There is no probing of reasons or consequences of this, but it is presented as a conundrum for the reader to ponder.
The paradox is that it is modern technology that makes the mediaeval poets widely accessible. And Auden, despite suggesting he can be compared with the mediaeval masters, states he cannot match their poetic quality.
This is a playful but thought-provoking poem and it reinforces the idea that no poet stands alone – influences and sources are distilled and digested, to be served up again in surprising ways by poets everywhere and in any time.
The Poetry Dude