In memoriam to Clive James
On WH Auden’s ‘The Cultural Presupposition’.
‘Happy the hare at morning’ – is a fine beginning to a poem. And the ‘rampant suffering suffocating jelly’ sounds like the sort of pointless insult Boris Johnson would fling at Jeremy Corbyn.
The poet surveys the inevitable decay and demise of all things. Art is humans flicking the bird at fate. ‘How comely are his places of refuge and the tabernacles of his peace’ – Auden parodies the Psalmist as an unsubtle reminder that religious paraphernalia are attributions of our own necessary comforts to an imagined Being – ‘The new books upon the morning table, the lawns and the afternoon terraces!’ (Yes, that couplet is plainly a Psalmodic pastiche.)
Then the poet takes a darker turn – most of his early poems are dark echoes and premonitions of war and cataclysm: ‘The galleries are full of music, the pianist is storming the/ keys, the great cellist is crucified over his instrument.’ Crucifixion returns us to Scriptures and the New Testaments horrific pivot, more horrifying still for the image of the ritual slaughter of someone on his very device of artistic diversion.
The final evocation of music as serving to drown out the cries of death, ‘that none may hear the ejaculations of the sentinels’ and the ‘sighs’ of the great mass of the expendable poor, ‘the thud of their falling bodies.’