Corot to Monet | Exhibitions | The National Gallery, London
"She climbs the European sky,
Churches and power-stations lie.
Alike among earth’s fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers.
And blankly as an orphan stares,
Upon the marvellous pictures.”
Benjamin Britten set four stanzas of his friend W.H. Auden's 1933 poem "A Summer Night", to be sung by the alto soloist and mixed chorus, in the 2nd movement of his "Spring Symphony" of 1949. Their use was controversial among critics at the time.
2007-11-18 14:59:28SUNDAY DEVOTIONAL:A SUMMER NIGHT
This week’s devotional comes in a moment of quiet, the proverbial calm before the storm. It’s also wholly inspired by an Edward Mendelson essay in the New York Review of Books about the poet W.H. Auden. I love Auden, but I’d never read this poem until today. It’s so beautiful.
But let me go back a moment. A few weeks ago, I received terrible news. An old friend from high school had lost his only child, a nine-year-old son, to a virus. It happened in a matter of days. Two decades ago, he and I had been close friends. We sat for hours at Peggy’s Barbecue in Dallas and talked about music, movies, women and life. We took our obsessions to ridiculous lengths.
After high school, we lost touch. I got the news of his tragedy from my cousin Martha, who met him in college. I sent a letter of condolence, but what’s to say? What relief exists in this world or the next?
And yet I can’t stop thinking about him and hoping that relief may come. I have a nine-year-old son, too, my only child. So this morning’s selection goes out to Ray in his time of darkness. May the darkness lift. May light,warm and huge, burst upon him.
It’s been said that Auden discovered his belief in the Christian god one summer night while sitting among friends. It was no moment of thunder and lightning, no deep mystery unveiled. He later wrote that, in that moment, he simply understood what it meant to love another as you love yourself. This was the alpha and omega of Auden’s faith, and the poem, “A Summer Night” is his account of the discovery.
According to Mendelsohn’s essay, the poet didn’t believe in Jesus as the literal son of god. He didn’t even believe it was Christian to call oneself a Christian; that was already too much of an assertion. Evidently, his most common use of the word was inside another word, “unChristian”.
This poem, “A Summer Night”, reminds me of the last lines of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which has become a kind of spiritual and philosophical cornerstone of this blog. Auden wrote it in June 1933, five months after Hitler came to power in Germany.
A Summer Night
(for Geoffrey Hoyland)
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June,
As congregated leaves complete
Their day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.
Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer.
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to a newcomer.
Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
W ith all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:
That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.
Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.
She climbs the European sky,
Churches and power-stations lie
Alike among earth’s fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers
And blankly as a butcher stares
Upon the marvellous pictures.
To gravity attentive, she
Can notice nothing here, though we
Whom hunger does not move,
From gardens where we feel secure
Look up and with a sigh endure
The tyrannies of love:
And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.
Soon, soon, through dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.
But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears,
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears,
May these delights we dread to lose,
This privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong,
As through a child’s rash happy cries
The drowned parental voices rise
In unlamenting song.
After discharges of alarm
All unpredicted let them calm
The pulse of nervous nations,
Forgive the murderer in his glass,
Tough in their patience to surpass
The tigress her swift motions.