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In Praise Of Limestone Analysis

Author: poem of W.H. Auden Type: poem Views: 23

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If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,

     Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly

Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes

     With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,

A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs

     That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,

Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving

     Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain

The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region

     Of short distances and definite places:

What could be more like Mother or a fitter background

     For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges

Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting

     That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but

Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop

     To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to

Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,

     Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish

To receive more attention than his brothers, whether

     By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down

     Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times

Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged

     On the shady side of a square at midday in

Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think

     There are any important secrets, unable

To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral

     And not to be pacified by a clever line

Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,

     They have never had to veil their faces in awe

Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;

     Adjusted to the local needs of valleys

Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,

     Their eyes have never looked into infinite space

Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,

     Their legs have never encountered the fungi

And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives

     With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.

So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works

     Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp

Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice

     For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all

But the best and the worst of us...

                                             That is why, I suppose,

     The best and worst never stayed here long but sought

Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,

     The light less public and the meaning of life

Something more than a mad camp. 'Come!' cried the granite wastes,

     "How evasive is your humour, how accidental

Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be

     Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels,

"On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers

     Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb

In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both

     Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and

Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched

     By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:

"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;

     That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;

There are only the various envies, all of them sad."

     They were right, my dear, all those voices were right

And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,

     Nor its peace the historical calm of a site

Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward

     And dilapidated province, connected

To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain

     Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:

It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself

     It does not neglect, but calls into question

All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,

     Admired for his earnest habit of calling

The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy

     By these marble statues which so obviously doubt

His antimythological myth; and these gamins,

     Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade

With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's

     Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what

And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,

     Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble

The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water

     Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these

Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music

     Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,

And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward

     To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if

Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,

     These modifications of matter into

Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,

     Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:

The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,

     Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of

Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love

     Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur

Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

                                             May 1948


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