Either Wisdom, or "Love:" "Ganymede," by W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

He looked in all His wisdom from the throne
Down on that humble boy who kept the sheep,
And sent a dove; the dove returned alone:
Youth liked the music, but soon fell asleep.

But He had planned such future for the youth:
Surely, His duty now was to compel.
For later he would come to love the truth,
And own his gratitude. His eagle fell.

It did not work. His conversation bored
The boy who yawned and whistled and made faces,
And wriggled free from fatherly embraces;

But with the eagle he was always willing
To go where it suggested, and adored
And learnt from it so many ways of killing.


This is a Cupid/Psyche story, but with a twist, and that twist is not in the homosexual affair between Zeus and Ganymede, I don’t think.

We can ascribe “wisdom” of some sort to Zeus from line 1. Such “wisdom” might turn out to be ironic (“all His wisdom” suggests a limit on Zeus’ wisdom), or it might not turn out so (Zeus is the most powerful Olympian, as he established the Olympian order in the first place). For Ganymede, we can see “humility,” which again could be ironic, given his ultimate pairing with the eagle.

Another thing of which to take note is the dominion of each. Zeus rules everything, but nothing in particular. His dominion has more to do with his having power, even if he doesn’t use it. Ganymede is watching over sheep, and “humble” suggests not only poverty, but also that he might be a servant to those sheep.

I should say that any religion worth a damn exhorts its followers to love, no matter where any given follower ranks in terms of having wisdom or intelligence. Religion stems from the fact of willing, the soul’s “spiritedness,” a redunancy which explains why the soul is. I suppose one might be able to read into this poem how the pagan and Christian orders merged, but I really do not want to go there right now.

Now wisdom always wants something better for all of us. It is only in our age that we say wisdom leaves well-enough alone. We say this because we do not value wisdom. We value what we think is freedom. In earlier, more primitive times, where men like Fred Flintstone had to run a little bit to get their cars moving, it was easier to say that perhaps the one who knows best is freest. In our time, we do as the Federalist, and say that if a bunch of Socrates were in a room, they would all argue, which is why they need to be divided into a bicameral legislature, etc.

Anyway, the point is that wisdom does seek some sort of unity with the will, and it literally through artifice and purposeful denial that our age tries to hide this. So how does wisdom try to achieve this unity?

The first appeal is made by the dove, but the dove’s song is boring for a youth. It only acts as a lullaby. I think the problem is Ganymede’s naivete; he doesn’t know what peace is good for yet. Maybe after he has had several broken relationships or witnessed a war, he would regard peace and its blessings differently.

But then again, maybe not. There is something about the will, the want for action, that does not accept a quiet rest as a blessing at all. And I think we will see something about love, which really is the will for most people, that is rather dark because of this at the end of this poem.

The second appeal is through the Truth, which works through speech and awe. Now if one is curious, Zeus’ speech should win them. It is the king of the gods speaking to one, why would he be an awful bore? He’s not, and something about the will, and something about love further, must be deduced from the rejection of Zeus’ speech (and Zeus’ paternal authority, which is also rejected).

I think again, we need to see something at fault in Ganymede. While Ganymede wants to be in motion – hence the rejection of the dove – whether he has ambitions for what is better generally can be cast in doubt. To reject the dove is probably to reject the best; Zeus is aiming, in Homer, for peace among the gods, no less. To reject Zeus’ plans for him, to not care about a truth that transcends the present, or any truth at all, really, shows a lack of curiosity and a lack of wonder (the eagle falling has to do with augury, and seeing the future).

Why does willing and loving reject wonder? Again, I keep saying the ultimate love is thought. But that’s for those us who are ugly people. If you’re beautiful, like Ganymede was, you don’t need to “think.” You just want to be, and you don’t even think about other people and how freedom could be manifest in them, and you don’t even think about your own future. To be concerned with one’s own beauty is to assume the world is yours, and that you are doing your best with it merely by being yourself. To embrace thought is to embrace that there are eternal things, but they are far above us, and that it is seeing change properly that allows us a peek into that which is divine. Ganymede doesn’t see the possibility of change at all, in any meaningful sense.

So Ganymede fits best with the eagle, the power “wisdom” can make manifest, but wisdom in a limited sense. It is having the “knowledge” that others don’t have, and using it to smear one’s mark on the world. An emphasis on beauty will always lead to this conclusion, where peace is not aesthetically pleasing enough, for it does not embrace motion, whereas love and willing are motions for most people, and their “goal” is beauty.

There is a deep irony here in who exactly is emphasizing beauty: we could say this was all Zeus’ fault, for He fell in love with the boy because of his beauty, and Zeus ought to have known better. In modern education, blame always hits the teachers and parents. But I have painted this as Ganymede’s fault, for the least he can do is stay awake and listen. I think we have to take the hint that while he is of humble circumstance, there is no humility in him, and that Zeus’ wisdom is both actual wisdom and fallacious, both at once, in trying to embrace Ganymede.

1 Comment

  1. I was off-line on friday, all day! It was most frustrating! But I am up and running now, for all that that’s worth. Traffic has been very odd, real high, then real low. Oh, well. I feel drained. I think there has been too much going on; too many people/situations pulling me in different directions. What a bother!

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