Sunday, November 20, 2011

Two Poets Walk Into a Pub

...Except they never met, really, and it wasn't a pub, it was a bar.

Maybe I should back up.

A commentator with the delightful* handle Steve with a book, over at Making Light, mentioned (in passing) what he called "Auden's questions: In what pubs are they welcome? What girls marry them?".

Well, I loves me some Auden, and those lines weren't from any Auden poem I knew, so I went and tracked them down.

The first thing to say is that, as I said at the beginning, it's not a pub, but a bar. The pub misquotation (to judge from the google results) originating in Clive James's book Cultural Amnesia, in a section that was reprinted in slate under the title Assessing Terry Gilliam, which presumably accounts for its prevelance in the googlesphere. Apart from that Anglicization of the post-English Auden, though, James's quotation seems perfectly apposite: he's discussing the torturer Peron, and Auden's original use is simply to stick the questions into parentheses after mentioning "torturers": "In what bars are they welcome?/What girls marry them?" A misquotation, to be sure, but not at all a misuse. Surely we can spot James a round at a pub in return for bringing to our attention those two lovely lines.

But what about the larger context, i.e. the whole poem? That, Noble Reader, is where things begin to get interesting.

The lines are from a poem (or ought one say group of poems?) that Auden published later in his career called "Eleven Occasional Poems". In particular, the lines are from the fifth subsection of that poem (or ought one to say to a poem in that group?), which is titled "Josef Weinheber" and subtitled with his dates (1892 - 1945). The subsections are separately dated**; "Josef Weinheber" is dated February, 1965.

And who, one wonders, was Josef Weinheber?

Well, it's not the kindest way to begin introducing the man, but given that we've come across him in the context of lines questioning the social acceptance of torturers, it seems appropriate to begin by noting that Josef Weinheber was a Nazi. I don't mean that rhetorically, but literally: he was a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party in the Third Reich. (He was Austrian, and became a citizen of the Reich with the anchlauss, which Weinheber apparently welcomed.)

Now, lest any of my readers not be all that familiar with Auden, let me hasten to add that the man was no Nazi sympathizer. (If he committed any political sins in the 1930's, they were on the left, not the right.) In fact, a fair amount of his poetry has a specifically and not-too-subtly anti-Nazi message. In "Spain" (1937) he wrote admiringly of the struggle against the fascists in Spain; in "Refugee Blues" (1939) he dramatized the plight of German Jewish refugees with nowhere to go in a way that is still being used in Holocaust course material. Auden himself married Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas, and Jewish on her mother's side) in order to obtain a British passport for her in 1935. (Auden was openly gay, and the marriage was forthrightly just for convenience. "***)

Okay. So Auden was no Nazi sympathizer. What was he doing eulogizing a former Nazi?

Well, for one thing, Weinheber apparently had -- eventually -- a falling-out with Naziism, and came to regret his support for them. Weinheber was also a poet that Auden admired, and was the only other resident of note in a town in southern Austria, Kirchstetten, where Auden summered in the last several years of his life (and where he died, and where he is buried.) Here's how Auden himself put the matter, at a 1968 poetry reading, as recoutned by James Fenton in the Guardian a few years ago:
[Auden] reads a poem in memory of Joseph Weinheber and, on introducing it, tells the audience that Weinheber was an important Austrian poet who was at first an enthusiastic Nazi supporter, but who gradually during the course of the second world war became disillusioned and depressed until, in 1945, he committed suicide. There is a dialect phrase in the poem, which Auden has to explain. Weinheber had been taken up by the Nazis, and Goebbels had asked him what the party could do for Austrian culture. "In Ruah lossen," Weinheber's reply, means that they should leave it alone, leave it in peace - precisely what the Nazis were unprepared to do. What Auden is addressing here is the ghost of a man who had made a very big mistake (supporting Nazism) and died regretting it.

Anyone interested in more details should seek out an article by Peter Edgarly Firchow, called "Auden and Weinheber: Poets of Kirchstetten", which explores the various intersections of the poets' lives in some detail. (It appeared first in the journal Salmagundi (No. 96 (Fall 1992), pp. 187-211) -- the link is to JSTOR, where it can be found by those who have access -- and later as the fifth and last chapter of Firchow's 2008 book Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960.) Definitely the major piece in this admittedly small corner of literary studies.

Or you could just read Auden's poem, which I've posted below.

Josef Weinheber
(1892 - 1945)

Reaching my gate, a narrow
lane from the village
passes on into a wood:
when I walk that way
it seems befitting to stop
and look through the fence
of your garden where (under
the circs they had to)
they buried you like a loved
old family dog.

Categorised enemies
twenty years ago,
now next-door neighbors, we might
have become good friends,
sharing a common ambit
and love of the Word,
over a golden Kremser
had many a long
language on syntax, commas,

Yes, yes, it has to be said:
men of great damage
and malengine took you up.
Did they for long, though,
take you in, who to Goebbels'
offer of culture
countered -- in Ruah lossen?
But Rag, Tag, Bobtail
prefer a stink, and the young
condemn you unread.

What, had you ever heard of
Franz Jägerstätter,
the St. Radegund peasant,
who said his lonely
Nein to the Aryan State
and was beheaded,
would your heart, as Austrian,
poet, have told you?
Good care, of course, was taken
you should hear nothing,

be unprepared for a day
that was bound to come,
a season of dread and tears
and dishevelment
when, transfixed by a nightmare,
you destroyed yourself.
Retribution was ever
a bungler at it:
dies alles ist furchtbar, hier
nur Schweigen gemass.

Unmarked by me, unmourned for,
the hour of your death,
unhailed by you the moment
when, providence-led,
I first beheld Kirchstetten
on a pouring wet
October day in a year
that changed our cosmos,
the annus mirabilis
when Parity fell.

Already the realms that lost
were properly warm
and over-eating, their crimes
the pedestrian
private sort, those nuisances,
corpses and rubble,
long carted away: for their raped
the shock was fading,
their kidnapped physicists felt
no longer homesick.

Today we smile at weddings
where bride and bridgegroom
were both born since the Shadow
lifted, or rather
moved elsewhere: never as yet
has Earth been without
her bad patch, some unplace with
jobs for torturers
(In what bars are they welcome?
What girls marry them?),

or her nutritive surface
at peace all over.
No one, so far as we know,
has ever felt safe:
and so, in secret regions,
good family men
keep eye, devoted as monks,
on apparatus
inside which harmless matter
turns homicidal.

Here, though, I feel as at home
as you did: the same
short-lived creatures re-utter
the same care-free songs,
orchards cling to the regime
they know, from April's
rapid augment of color
til boisterous Fall,
when at each stammering gust
apples thump the ground.

Looking across our valley
where, hidden from view,
Sichelbach tottles westward
to join the Perschling,
humanely modest in scale
and mild in contour,
conscious of grander neighbors
to bow to, mountains
soaring behind me, ahead
a noble river,

I would respect you also,
Neighbor and Colleague,
for even my English ear
gets in your German
the workmanship and the note
of one who was graced
to hear the viols playing
on the impaled green,
committed thereafter den
Abgrund zu nennen.

-- W. H. Auden
February, 1965
Hey! Wanna see my impression of an editor for the Norton Anthology of Whatever?

• 8: "circs": circumstances. Fenton comments: "The abbreviation of circumstances to "circs" in the first stanza is typical of the linguistic mannerisms that used to annoy his critical readers, but Auden is expecting us to notice that the very informal language is gently referring to a terrifying moment in history."

• 27: "in Ruah lossen" Weinheber's (apparently real) response to Goebbels's question about what he could do for Austrian culture -- which Firchow translates as "leave 'em alone".

• 31: "Franz Jägerstätter". The story Auden tells here is a true one. Details here.

• 45-46: "when, transfixed by a nightmare/you destroyed yourself." Weinheber committed suicide on April 8, 1945,

• 49-50: "dies alles ist furchtbar, hier/nur Schweigen gemass" - lines quoted from a poem of Weinheber's called "Auf das Unabwendbare" ("On the Unavoidable"), which Firchow translates as "all of this is terrible;/here silence is the only proper response." Firchow goes on to say that "The words actually do not actually appear in quite the way that Auden cites them, but represent a fusion of the stanzaic refrain (Dies alles ist furchtbar) with the final line of the poem (Hier ist nur Schweigen gemäss)."

• 55: "Kirchstetten" - we already covered this, O Careless Reader! That's the town in southern Austria where Weinheber lived & where Auden had a summer home.

• 59, "annus mirabilis" - Latin for "year of miracles". Originally used in reference to 1666 (see here for more), now a common phrase. Firchow glosses this as (for Auden) 1939.

• 103-104: "Sichelbach tottles westward/to join the Perschling". The Perschling is a tributary to the Danube in Austria; I'm presuming that the Sichelbach is too, but, really, who the fuck knows. An actual Norton editor gets paid for this shit, right?

• 119 - 120: "den/Abgrund zu nennen". Of these lines, Firchow writes that they are
taken, again in slightly altered form, almost as if Auden were revising one of his own poems, from the poem "Kammermusik" (1939), in the collection of the same name. The poem, subtitled "A Variation," consists of four stanzas, with each stanza being spoken by one of the instruments in the quartet. The two violins start off expressing, as in their nature, sunny or only slightly shaded views of life. The viola, however, provides a dark glimpse of the abyss, which, drawn as it is to suffering rather than to naive optimism, the viola feels obligated to name (den Abgrund euch zu nennen). The cello closes the poem on a note of reconciliation, of seeing the whole, of accepting what fate brings: "I don't warn, I weep with you. I console." Significantly, however, Auden picks out the suffering Christian voice of the viola, rather than the balanced Greek voice of the cello, when he wishes to give us his final verdict on Weinheber.
• "February, 1965": Has the poem been translated into German? Why yes, it has.

* Well, a good name and a good object, what else could you want?

** Which inclines one towards calling them poems, with Auden's collective grouping simply being a way of slightly deemphasizing poems which fall into his category of "pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance" (which, Auden continues, "must invariably form the bulk of any collection since, were he to limit to to... those poems for which he is honestly grateful, his volume would be too depressingly slim.") But the typographical signals in the layout of the Collected Poems definitely marks them out as a poem, rather than as eleven of them.

*** There are a number of charming stories about the marriage arrangements, most of them, I believe, appocraphal. I recall two. One is that when Auden was approached to see if he would marry Mann in order to get her out of Nazi Germany, he replied, affirmingly, "What's a bugger for?" The other is that before Mann arrived to marry Auden, they'd never met, so he didn't know what she looked like. There was a mix-up about the times, so she was not on the train; but Auden, seeing a lone woman get out, assumed it was her, walked up to her, and said, "Madam, I understand that we are to be married tomorrow."

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