“A Little Side-Trip in Auden”

AG: So what comes on then with (W.H.) Auden (Auden’s a pretty sophisticated man) is a profuse version [of alliterative verse]. It’s not an early muscular version of alliterative writing but, every once in a while, as we had in that piece I read last time where he’s just giving the news broadcast, that’s more like the older Anglo-Saxon -Now the news. Night raids on/Five cities. Fires started..”Do you remember that? – So I’m going to go on with a few more speeches by the characters in “The Age of Anxiety” Quant is talking about the seven ages of man, and this is, like, kid-time, a kid with his play (except it’s located in the Industrial landscape). So it’s a vision of the Industrial landscape seen through the eyes of a kid playing behind the factories in somewhat lax but real alliterative verse.

“Secret meetings at the slaughter-house/ With nickels and knives , initiations/Behind the billboards. Then the hammerpond looked/So green and grim, yet graciously its dank/Water made us welcome – once in, we/ Swam without swearing. The smelting mill/We broke into a big chimney/And huge engines, holding our breath, we/Lighted matches and looked at the gears,/The cruel cogwheels, the crank’s absolute/Veto on pleasure. In a vacant lot/We built a bonfire and burned alive/Some stolen tires. How strong and good one/Felt at first, how fagged coming through the urban evening/Heavy like us/Sank the gas-tanks – it was supper time/In hot houses helpless babies and/Telephones gabbled untidy cries,/And on embankments black with burnt grass/Shambling freight-trains were shunted away/Past crimson clouds.”

[actually, it’s pretty good for twentieth-century landscape, but is one grey.. Like,”Heavy like us/ Sank the gas-tanks” – my god! it’s awful! – but it is, that is, almost, like a primaeval vision of the Industrial landscape like out of Beowulf– “Heavy like us/ Sank the gas-tanks”
So.. there actually is a real use for this kind of verse, if you really want to punch home -“now the news” – now the primaeval news – if you want to punch home the primaeval news.

Let’s see what else? – I hadn’t, as I said, I hadn’t read this for many years, but things came up, like perfume out of the past, it was like Proust dipping on a little madeline cookie into the tea and remembering childhood afternoons.

“Quant: [in reply to the cliche, “Time flies”] -” No, Time returns, a continuous Now/ as the clock counts. The captain sober/Gulps his beer as the galley-boy drunk/Gives away his water/William East is/ Entering Olive as Alfred West/Is leaving Elaine, Lucky
McGuire/Divides the spoil as Vacuous Molly/Joins in the joke, Justice van
Dieman/Foresees the day when the slaves riseand/Ragamuffins roll around the block/His cone-shapedskull, while Convict 90/Remembers his mother. We move on/ As the wheel wills, one revolution/Registers all things, the rise and fall/In pay and prices,
peregrinations/Of lies and loves, colossal bangs and/Their sequential quiets in quick order./And who runs may read written on walls:”Teddy Peterson/Never washes” “I’m not your father/You slobbering Swede” “Sulky Moses/Has bees in his bush” “Betty is thinner/But Connie lays”..”
(that’s the beginning of a much longer, longer, soliloquy. I’m just reading, sort of, the high points..)

Then what he [Auden] tried to do (which was a later development)…See, the Old English verse was alliterative, but then there were Norman invasions, French language overlay on the Anglo-Saxon, and so, apparently,there was, like, a progression in the verse forms toward a lengthening-out (of) the alliterativething, it becoming less and less accentual and more and more like the prosody of the Continent, of France particularly, which was, I think, in those days, counted syllables, and some Latin aspect, of,like, the vowels. So the element of counting the length of vowel and counting the number of syllables began smoothing out the line a little bit, as time went on. In other words, the.. there was this.. the French prosody fucked (the) English prosody and what came out was this hybrid, which finally emerges later later later..well, first in Chaucer and then, later on, up to Shakespeare‘s blank verse. But, as part of that, then they began making little song forms, verse stanzas instead of these heavy stark lines, then they began making verse form. So Auden has made a little funny verse form (you know, like a stanza form) instead of just the alliterative lines (he’s used alliteration but made a stanza form out of it) and in it are some of the.. .one of the greatest lines, I think, of the century, actually, one of the most interesting trick, trick-strange,classic lines (but not very well know yet, I’m sure it’ll be in anthologies in a hundred years).

Rosetta, the advertising girl, is talking:

“Opera glasses on the ormolu table/Frock -coated father framed on the wall/In a bath chair facing a big bow window/With valley and village invitingly spread/I get what is going on./ At the bend in the Bourne where the brambles grow thickest/Major Mott meets Millicent Rusk,/Discreetly the kingfisher keeps his distance/But an old old swan looks on as they/Commit the sanguine sin/ Heavy the orchards: There’s Alison pinching/Her baby brother, Bobby and Dick/Frying a frog with their father’s reading glass,/Conrad and Kay in the carpentry shed,/Where they’ve no business to be./Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh/ Babel’s urbanities buried in sand/Red the geraniums in the rectory garden/ Where the present incumbent reads Plato in French/And has lost his belief in Hell./ From the gravel pits in Groaning Hollow/To the monkey puzzle on Murderer’s Hill/From the Wellington Arms to the white steam laundry,/The significant note is nature’s cry/Of long-divided love:/ As I watch through my window a world that has fallen,/The mating and malice of men and beasts/ The corporate greed of quiet vegetation/And the homesick little obstinate sobs/Of things thrown into being.”

I guess those last lines – “Of things thrown into being”, “Commit the sanguine sin”, “I get what was going on” “Where there’s no business to be” and “And has lost his belief in Hell” – there’s something there of old Greek Sapphic stanzas or Alcaic stanza– I’ve forgotten how to identify it.
But I love that”Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh/ Babel’s urbanities buried in sand” – I remember that. People walked around Columbia University campus in 1946 saying”Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh/ Babel’s urbanities buried in sand”I hadn’t seen it through all the years, but it stuck, so it must be good.

Student: What does it mean?

AG:”Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh..”? Kibroth-Hattaavh? Well, Kibroth-Hattaavh – I never found out where that was, but presumably that’s whereAyatollah Khomeni [sic]…is, is making some scene – [this is 1980] -Kibroth-Hattaavh, I guess, is a Middle Eastern, Mesopotamian, archaelological site, most likely. Babel – the tower of Babel, where many languages were spoken, where all the urbane diplomats got together to speak many languages – just like right now. “Babel’surbanities”? – Well,the foreigners all assemble in Babel to build the tower that would reach heaven and overtake the Gods. All the sophisticates with their Afric clay, their Afric red clay and their brown clay from Northern Germany and their giant cartwheels with iron rims from Kibroth-Hattaavh, all getting together, all these urbane fellows having tea and drinking wine together and making big plans for the neutron bomb! -“Babel’s urbanities buried in sand”! And, right now, about where the Tower of Babel was (there’s a great sandy desert).. In fact, I think some Japanese..I read in the(New York) Times some Japanese architectural association has just been.. has signed a contact to rebuild the Tower of Babel! – Actually! – Just in time! – Actually! – They’re going to build theTower of Babel! -Right on the spot! They’re having a little difficulty, because the…

Peter Orlovsky That’s right, that’s right..

AG: …the whole place has just sunk into the mud, it’s hard to find some firm foundations.

Student: The Tower of Pisa?
AG: No, it’s the Tower of Babel that they’re going to do..
Peter Orlovsky: the Tower of Babel, right, the Tower of Babylon, in Iraq – Iraq
AG: …The Tower of Pisa’s still standing…
Student: Who’s going to build it? Wall Street?
Peter Orlovsky: The Japanese

AG: No, no, they didn’t ask Americans or other Westerners, they asked the Japanese because the Japanese were technologically superior, and were more urbane! these days – and they had more money! – (they’d moregold around)- “Japanese urbanities buried in sand” – “Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh” – I guess, that must have been , Kibroth-Hattaavh must have been.. I looked it up in the Classical Dictionary but it was a Shorter Classical Dictionary and I didn’t find it, but I assume it’s some place where they.. some archaeological dig where they found lots of cuneiform (clay) -“Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh” – (hyphenated – K-I-B-R-O-T-H – hyphen – H-A-T-T-A-A-V-H – Hattaavh) -“Cold are the clays of Kibroth-Hattaavh// Babel’s urbanities buried in sand”
Now that’s a little side-trip in Auden

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-eight-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately sixty-and-a-quarter minutes in]

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