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Under Which Lyre Analysis

Author: poem of W.H. Auden Type: poem Views: 5

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(Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946)

Ares at last has quit the field,

The bloodstains on the bushes yield

     To seeping showers,

And in their convalescent state

The fractured towns associate

     With summer flowers.

Encamped upon the college plain

Raw veterans already train

     As freshman forces;

Instructors with sarcastic tongue

Shepherd the battle-weary young

     Through basic courses.

Among bewildering appliances

For mastering the arts and sciences

     They stroll or run,

And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter

Are shot to pieces by the shorter

     Poems of Donne.

Professors back from secret missions

Resume their proper eruditions,

     Though some regret it;

They liked their dictaphones a lot,

T hey met some big wheels, and do not

     Let you forget it.

But Zeus' inscrutable decree

Permits the will-to-disagree

     To be pandemic,

Ordains that vaudeville shall preach

And every commencement speech

     Be a polemic.

Let Ares doze, that other war

Is instantly declared once more

    'Twixt those who follow

Precocious Hermes all the way

And those who without qualms obey

     Pompous Apollo.

Brutal like all Olympic games,

Though fought with smiles and Christian names

     And less dramatic,

This dialectic strife between

The civil gods is just as mean,

     And more fanatic.

What high immortals do in mirth

Is life and death on Middle Earth;

     Their a-historic

Antipathy forever gripes

All ages and somatic types,

     The sophomoric

Who face the future's darkest hints

With giggles or with prairie squints

     As stout as Cortez,

And those who like myself turn pale

As we approach with ragged sail

     The fattening forties.

The sons of Hermes love to play

And only do their best when they

     Are told they oughtn't;

Apollo's children never shrink

From boring jobs but have to think

     Their work important.

Related by antithesis,

A compromise between us is


Respect perhaps but friendship never:

Falstaff the fool confronts forever

      The prig Prince Hal.

If he would leave the self alone,

Apollo's welcome to the throne,

     Fasces and falcons;

He loves to rule, has always done it;

The earth would soon, did Hermes run it,

     Be like the Balkans.

But jealous of our god of dreams,

His common-sense in secret schemes

      To rule the heart;

Unable to invent the lyre,

Creates with simulated fire

     Official art.

And when he occupies a college,

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;

     He pays particular

Attention to Commercial Thought,

Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,

     In his curricula.

Athletic, extrovert and crude,

For him, to work in solitude

     Is the offence,

The goal a populous Nirvana:

His shield bears this device: Mens sana

     Qui mal y pense

Today his arms, we must confess,

From Right to Left have met success,

     His banners wave

From Yale to Princeton, and the news

From Broadway to the Book Reviews

     Is very grave.

His radio Homers all day long

In over-Whitmanated song

     That does not scan,

With adjectives laid end to end,

Extol the doughnut and commend

     The Common Man.

His, too, each homely lyric thing

On sport or spousal love or spring

     Or dogs or dusters,

Invented by some court-house bard

For recitation by the yard

     In filibusters.

To him ascend the prize orations

And sets of fugal variations

     On some folk-ballad,

While dietitians sacrifice

A glass of prune-juice or a nice

     Marsh-mallow salad.

Charged with his compound of sensational

Sex plus some undenominational

     Religious matter,

Enormous novels by co-eds

Rain down on our defenceless heads

     Till our teeth chatter.

In fake Hermetic uniforms

Behind our battle-line, in swarms

    That keep alighting,

His existentialists declare

That they are in complete despair,

    Yet go on writing.

No matter; He shall be defied;

White Aphrodite is on our side:

    What though his threat

To organize us grow more critical?

Zeus willing, we, the unpolitical,

    Shall beat him yet.

Lone scholars, sniping from the walls

Of learned periodicals,

    Our facts defend,

Our intellectual marines,

Landing in little magazines

    Capture a trend.

By night our student Underground

At cocktail parties whisper round

    From ear to ear;

Fat figures in the public eye

Collapse next morning, ambushed by

    Some witty sneer.

In our morale must lie our strength:

So, that we may behold at length

    Routed Apollo's

Battalions melt away like fog,

Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,

    Which runs as follows:--

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,

Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis

    On education,

Thou shalt not worship projects nor

Shalt thou or thine bow down before


Thou shalt not answer questionnaires

Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,

    Nor with compliance

Take any test. Thou shalt not sit

With statisticians nor commit

    A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms

With guys in advertising firms,

    Nor speak with such

As read the Bible for its prose,

Nor, above all, make love to those

    Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means

Nor on plain water and raw greens.

    If thou must choose

Between the chances, choose the odd;

Read The New Yorker, trust in God;

    And take short views.


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