W. H. Auden

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Every perfect life is a parable invented by God.
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There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 - 29 September 1973) was an Anglo-American poet noted for his vast poetic work in a number of themes central in his times.



To ask the hard question is simple

To ask the hard question is simple,
The simple act of the confused will.

  • Written August 1930. Lines 6-7

Case Histories

I am beginning to lose patience
With my personal relations.
They are not deep
And they are not cheap.

  • Written 1930, published in The English Auden

Stop all the clocks

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

  • Written 1936. Also known as Funeral Blues. Lines 1-12

Now the leaves are falling fast

Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse's flowers will not last;
Nurses to their graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.

  • Written 1936. Lines 1-4

Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountain's lovely head
Whose white waterfall could bless
Travellers in their last distress.

  • Lines 17-20

The Ascent of F6

Acts of injustice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.

Lay your sleeping head, my love

Lay your sleeping head, my love
Human on my faithless arm.

  • Written January 1937. Also known as Lullaby. Lines 1-2


And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets
Of the evening paper: "Our day is our loss, O show us

History the operator, the

Organiser, Time the refreshing river."

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders

The private nocturnal terror:

"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?

Intervene. Descend as a dove or

A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

  • Written March 1937. Lines 33-44

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;

On that tableland scored by rivers,

Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad and the brochure of winter cruises

Have become invading battalions;

And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom

As the ambulance and the sandbag;

Our hours of friendship into a people's army.

  • Lines 65-76

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under

Liberty's masterful shadow;

To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,

The eager election of chairmen

By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;

To-morrow the bicycle races

Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

  • Lines 81-92

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and

History to the defeated

May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

  • Lines 101-104

As I Walked Out One Evening

'O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.'

  • Written November 1937. Lines 37-44

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters.

  • Written December 1938. Lines 1-2

They never forgot
That even the most dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

  • Lines 9-13

Epitaph on a Tyrant

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

  • Written January 1939. Lines 5-6

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs.
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered over a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
are modified in the guts of the living.

  • Written February 1939. Lines 10-23

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

  • Lines 66-77

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

  • Written September 1939. Lines 1-11

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

  • Lines 19-22

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse.

  • Lines 34-39

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish.

  • Lines 56-58

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

  • Lines 62-66

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

  • Lines 78-88
    • For a 1955 anthology text the poet changed this line to "We must love one another and die" to avoid what he regarded as a falsehood in the original.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

  • Lines 89-99

In Memory of Sigmund Freud

Sad is Eros, builder of cities,
And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

  • Written November 1939. Lines 111-112

Base words are uttered

Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood;
But noble platitudes — ah, there's a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that's genuinely good
From one that's base but merely has succeeded.

  • Written 1940. Lines 1-5

The Fall of Rome

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

  • Written January 1947. Lines 21-28

The Shield of Achilles

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,

Loitered about that vacancy: a bird

Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard

Of any world where promises were kept
Or one could weep because another wept.

  • Written 1952. Lines 53-59

The More Loving

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.

  • Written September 1957. Lines 8-12

After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
In which a lover's kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one's neck.

  • Written 1961. Lines 9-16


Thoughts of his own death,
like the distant roll
of thunder at a picnic.

  • Written between 1965 and 1968.

Moon Landing

We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam's,

still don't fit us exactly, modern
only in this — our lack of decorum.
  • Written August 1969. Lines 10-16

On This Island

  • Look, stranger, on this island now.

It's no use raising a Shout

  • What's the good of going to Wales?


"Squares and Oblongs" (Poets at Work (1948))

  • A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
    • (p. 170)

"The Dyer's Hand" (essay, 1955)

  • Before people complain of the obscurity of modern poetry, they should first examine their consciences and ask themselves with how many people and on how many occasions they have genuinely and profoundly shared some experience with another; they might also ask themselves how much poetry of any period they can honestly say that they understand.
    • Published in The Listener, 30 June 1955

The Dyer's Hand (1962)

[Vintage, ISBN 0-679-72484-2]

  • The surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it.
    • "Reading" (p. 6)
  • In general, when reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations than from his comments.
    • "Reading" (p. 9)
  • Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.
    • "Reading" (p.10)
  • One cannot review a bad book without showing off.
    • "Reading" (p. 11)
  • At first critics classified authors as Ancients, that is to say, Greek and Latin authors, and Moderns, that is to say, every post-Classical Author. Then they classified them by eras, the Augustans, the Victorians, etc., and now they classify them by decades, the writers of the '30's, '40's, etc. Very soon, it seems, they will be labeling authors, like automobiles, by the year.
    • "Reading" (p. 12)
  • No poet or novelist wishes he were the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.
    • "Writing" (p.14)
  • In the course of many centuries a few laborsaving devices have been introduced into the mental kitchen — alcohol, coffee, tobacco, Benzedrine, etc. — but these are very crude, constantly breaking down, and liable to injure the cook. Literary composition in the twentieth century A.D. is pretty much what it was in the twentieth century B.C.: nearly everything has still to be done by hand.
    • "Writing" (p. 17)
  • The poet who writes "free" verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor — dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.
    • "Writing" (p. 22)
  • The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: "For God's sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages," what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self-appointed unqualified nurse says: "You are to sing the patient a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can cure him. If you can't or won't, I shall confiscate your passport and send you to the mines." And the poor patient in his delirium cries: "Please sing me a song which will give me sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona."
    • "Writing" (p. 27)
  • Without Art, we should have no notion of the sacred; without Science, we should always worship false gods.
    • "The Virgin & The Dynamo" (p. 62)
  • When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.
    • "The Poet & The City" (p. 81)
  • What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.
    • "The Poet & The City" (p.83)
  • All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.
    • "The Poet & The City" (p. 84)
  • When I consider others I can easily believe that their bodies express their personalities and that the two are inseparable. But it is impossible for me not to feel that my body is other than I, that I inhabit it like a house, and that my face is a mask which, with or without my consent, conceals my real nature from others.
    • "Hic et Ille" (p. 104)
  • The image of myself which I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.
    • "Hic et Ille" (p. 104)
  • Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.
    • "Hic et Ille" (p. 105)
  • To have a sense of sin means to feel guilty at there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which, however "good" I may become, remains unchanged.
    • "The Guilty Vicarage" (p. 157)
  • The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged, only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish.
    • "The Prince's Dog" (p. 201)
  • All wishes, whatever their apparent content, have the same and unvarying meaning: "I refuse to be what I am."
    • "Interlude: West's Disease" (p. 241)
  • All pity is self-pity.
    • "Interlude: West's Disease" (p. 243)
  • In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was also easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire. If, in order to hear some music, a man has to wait for six months and then walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words, "I should like to hear some music," mean what they appear to mean, or merely, "At this moment I should like to forget myself." When all he has to do is press a switch, it is more difficult. He may easily come to believe that wishes can come true.
    • Interlude: West's Disease" (p. 245)
  • To some degree every American poet feels that the whole responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his shoulders, that he is a literary aristocracy of one.
    • "American Poetry" (p. 367)
  • A vice in common can be the ground of a friendship but not a virtue in common. X and Y may be friends because they are both drunkards or womanizers but, if they are both sober and chaste, they are friends for some other reason.
    • "Don Juan" (p. 403)
  • Unfortunately for the modern dramatist, during the past century and a half the public realm has been less and less of a realm where human deeds are done, and more and more of a realm of mere human behavior. The contemporary dramatist has lost his natural subject.
    • "Genius & Apostle" (p. 435)
  • When one looks into the window of a store which sells devotional art objects, one can't help wishing the iconoclasts had won.
    • "Postscript: Christianity & Art" (p. 461)
  • No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.
    • "Notes on Music and Opera" (p.472)

A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970)

[Viking Press, 1st edition, ISBN 0-670-20994-5]

  • Politics cannot be a science, because in politics theory and practice cannot be separated, and the sciences depend upon their separation.
    • "Tyranny”

Forewords and Afterwords (1973)

[Vintage Books, ISBN 0-394-71887-9]

  • A god who is both self-sufficient and content to remain so could not interest us enough to raise the question of his existence.
    • "The Greeks and Us" (pp.15-16)
  • The truly tragic kind of suffering is the kind produced and defiantly insisted upon by the hero himself so that, instead of making him better, it makes him worse and when he dies he is not reconciled to the law but defiant, that is, damned. Lear is not a tragic hero, Othello is.
    • "The Greeks and Us" (p.21)
  • The idea of a sacrificial victim is not new; but that it should be the victim who chooses to be sacrificed, and the sacrificers who deny that any sacrifice has been made, is very new.
    • "Augustus to Augustine" (p.37)
  • The basic stimulus to the intelligence is doubt, a feeling that the meaning of an experience is not self-evident.
    • "The Protestant Mystics" (p.51)
  • Whatever the field under discussion, those who engage in debate must not only believe in each other's good faith, but also in their capacity to arrive at the truth.
    • "The Protestant Mystics" (p.52)
  • The mystics themselves do not seem to have believed their physical and mental sufferings to be a sign of grace, but it is unfortunate that it is precisely physical manifestations which appeal most to the religiosity of the mob. A woman might spend twenty years nursing lepers without having any notice taken of her, but let her once exhibit the stigmata or live for long periods on nothing but the Host and water, and in no time the crowd will be clamoring for her beatification.
    • "The Protestant Mystics" (p.72)
  • In the late Middle Ages there were, no doubt, many persons in monasteries and convents who had no business there and should have been out in the world earning an honest living, but today it may very well be that there are many persons trying to earn a living in the world and driven by failure into mental homes whose true home would be the cloister.
    • "The Protestant Mystics" (p.73)
  • He [Kierkegaard] suffers from one great literary defect, which is often found in lonely geniuses: he never knows when to stop. Lonely people are apt to fall in love with the sound of their own voice, as Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, not out of conceit but out of despair of finding another who will listen and respond.
    • "A Knight of Doleful Countenance" (pp.192-193)
  • I said earlier that I do not believe an artist's life throws much light upon his works. I do believe, however, that, more often than most people realize, his works may throw light upon his life. An artist with certain imaginative ideas in his head may then involve himself in relationships which are congenial to them.
    • "The Greatest of the Monsters" (p.247)
  • A craftsman knows in advance what the finished result will be, while the artist knows only what it will be when he has finished it. But it is unbecoming in an artist to talk about inspiration; that is the reader's business.
    • "A Poet of the Actual" (p.265)
  • Machines have no political opinions, but they have profound political effects. They demand a strict regimentation of time, and, by abolishing the need for manual skill, have transformed the majority of the population from workers into laborers. There are, that is to say, fewer and fewer jobs which a man can find a pride and satisfaction in doing well, more and more which have no interest in themselves and can be valued only for the money they provide.
    • "A Russian Aesthete" (p.279)
  • In most poetic expressions of patriotism, it is impossible to distinguish what is one of the greatest human virtues from the worst human vice, collective egotism.

    The virtue of patriotism has been extolled most loudly and publicly by nations that are in the process of conquering others, by the Roman, for example, in the first century B.C., the French in the 1790s, the English in the nineteenth century, and the Germans in the first half of the twentieth. To such people, love of one's country involves denying the right of others, of the Gauls, the Italians, the Indians, the Poles, to love theirs.

  • Most people call something profound, not because it is near some important truth but because it is distant from ordinary life. Thus, darkness is profound to the eye, silence to the ear; what-is-not is the profundity of what-is.
    • "Un Homme d'Esprit" (p.361)
  • Young people, who are still uncertain of their identity, often try on a succession of masks in the hope of finding the one which suits them — the one, in fact, which is not a mask.
    • "One of the Family" (p.369)
  • Most people are even less original in their dreaming than in their waking life; their dreams are more monotonous than their thoughts and oddly enough, more literary.
  • In all technologically "advanced" countries, fashion has replaced tradition, so that involuntary membership in a society can no longer provide a feeling of community.
    • "Lame Shadows" (p.410)
  • It is, for example, axiomatic that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time: conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction.
    • "Markings" (p.438)
  • In any modern city, a great deal of our energy has to be expended in not seeing, not hearing, not smelling. An inhabitant of New York who possessed the sensory acuteness of an African Bushman would very soon go mad.
    • "The Justice of Dame Kind" (p.464)
  • One can only blaspheme if one believes.
    • "Concerning the Unpredictable" (p.472)
  • The curious delusion that some families are older than others.
    • "As It Seemed to Us" (p.498)

Quotes from interviews and profiles

  • Normally, when one passes someone on the street who is in pain, one either tries to help him, or one simply looks the other way. With a photo there's no human decision; you're not there; you can't turn away; you simply gape. It's a form of voyeurism.
    • Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, 4th series [ISBN 0-14-00-4543-0] (p.247) [The interview took place in 1972.]
  • It's frightfully important for a writer to be his age, not to be younger or older than he is. One might ask, "What should I write at the age of sixty-four," but never, "What should I write in 1940."
    • Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, 4th series (p.250)
  • A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue, which is always being corrupted. When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over.
    • Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, 4th series (p.251)
  • I never write when I'm drunk. Why should one need aids? The Muse is a high-spirited girl who doesn't like to be brutally or coarsely wooed. And she doesn't like slavish devotion — then she lies.
    • Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, 4th series (p.254)
  • I don't think the mystical experience can be verbalized. When the ego disappears, so does power over language.
    • Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, 4th series (p.266)


  • We are all on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, I can't imagine.
    • Often cited as by Auden without attribution, this quotation has been traced to John Foster Hall (1867-1945), an English comedian known as the the Reverend Vivian Foster, Vicar of Mirth. Full history with sound recording
  • Minus times minus equals plus,
    The reason for this we need not discuss.
    • As stated in a New York Times article, "The Poet Himself" by Paul Fussell (1981-10-04), [1], these lines were a "math mnemonic" which Auden "had to memorize as a child."

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