W.H. Auden, “First Things First”

With thanks to Deandra Lieberman

First Things First (from The Poetic Quotidian)
W.H. Auden

Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened
To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark
Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober,
Set to work to unscramble that interjectory uproar,
Construing its airy vowels and watery consonants
Into a love-speech indicative of a Proper Name.

Scarcely the tongue I should have chosen, yet, as well
As harshness and clumsiness would allow, it spoke in your praise,
Kenning you a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind
With power to tame both real and imaginary monsters,
Likening your poise of being to an upland county,
Here green on purpose, there pure blue for luck.

Loud though it was, alone as it certainly found me,
It reconstructed a day of peculiar silence
When a sneeze could be heard a mile off, and had me walking
On a headland of lava beside you, the occasion as ageless
As the stare of any rose, your presence exactly
So once, so valuable, so very now.

This, moreover, at an hour when only to often
A smirking devil annoys me in beautiful English,
Predicting a world where every sacred location
Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do,
Misinformed and thoroughly fleeced by their guides,
And gentle hearts are extinct like Hegelian Bishops.

Grateful, I slept till a morning that would not say
How much it believed of what I said the storm had said
But quietly drew my attention to what had been done
—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern
Against a leonine summer—, putting first things first:
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

Comment:

Is the Christian God being praised? That was my initial thought. “First Things” in the title keeps that a guiding assumption. The “storm enjoying its storminess” would be a pagan god. But the Proper Name of the first stanza is mere air and water, two elements quite conspicuous in the Creation and Flood stories.

That Proper Name in the second stanza helps articulate the formerly pagan powers. The audience being addressed (“you”) is named “a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind.” The powers of mystery and passion are ascribed to him. Moreover, he is indicated as having a “poise of being” that is the landscape itself. The name hints at hope (“green”) and a fortune that is Providence (“blue” reminds of the “sky”).

The third stanza gives us fire and earth (“lava”) in addition to air and water. Indirectly, one could say the revelation of the first three stanzas has happened through air alone. Invisibility and revelation of an intensely personal value are joined in that “day of peculiar silence when a sneeze could be heard a mile off.” The pagan gods had real powers, but the point of worshipping God isn’t power. All the elements which compose this world and the most beautiful growth may hearken to higher purpose, but what we need might be something quieter, closer, present.

What is the devil’s taunt? That all religions, including Christianity, will sink into the ground. Clergy of any sort may be “Hegelian.” It isn’t that they lie. They have to assume they have the truth, that belief is knowledge, in order to have the position they hold in this world. That may not hold for more run-of-the-mill believers, especially in a time of liberal democracy. Providence for “Hegelian bishops” may not just be hope, but the unfolding of absolute Idea, the trust in a rationality that certainly can’t be confirmed.

The result of the storm and the existential meditation on faith isn’t an immediate love. Our speaker is alone with the morning. But he is left with perhaps the most Providential sign. If the first three stanzas concerned air, the last is the promise of water. This God doesn’t judge like the devil or overpower like the pagan deities. The best things can wait.

17 Thoughts.

  1. -He is making a criticism of his frequent Sunday morning pastime, churchgoing, where harsh “guides” misinform and “fleece” the flock.

    The poem seems to me to be celebrating a memory–staying in bed on a Sunday morning to revel in the memory of a certain individual (“a Proper Name”)–in a sensory language which cannot express the intensity of passion the poet feels or the magnetic hypnosis the loved one influences.

    But this rest helped him to clear his mind and make priorities…as he realized that his *internal rhyme* (leonine) was balanced when his cistern was replenished in the “storm.”

    Does that make sense to you? Thanks for the poem. It was soulfood for me. ;)

  2. oops…I meant to say the sensory language handles the passion and influence better than actual words or language could express…

  3. They show 30 rock reruns twice a day now. that means I’m clueless as to what is “happening” in the news oh well:

    Tax breaks for research companies wind up in interesting places:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/technology/rich-tax-breaks-bolster-video-game-makers.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=research%20tax%20breaks%20video%20games&st=cse

    something in the magazine:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/dear-novelists-be-less-moses-and-more-cosell.html

  4. I definitely get a transcendentalist vibe from this poem…almost like conventional christian god comes after the more primal earth god (lol). We can live without love (christian god) but not without water(earth spriritual force.)

  5. Nola- that’s actually what I got out of it the first several readings.
    Then I realized I was misreading the second to last line as a statement in itself instead of a prelude to the final line. I wasn’t seeing the colon… and it took on something else entirely for me.

  6. Wow. i agree with none of your interpretation.
    For instance the “C” refers to Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover.
    It is composed in the white heat of a broken love…at the time Chester left him.
    This is confirmed by the last lines where he resolves to go on in a leonine summer.

  7. “Leonine summer” because the experience WHA describes (waking in the middle of the night and hearing a storm “speaking” to him) occurs at the beginning of his summer stay on the hot, dry island of Ischia off the Italian coast. He spent summers there from about 1948 through 1957. What the storm reminds him of, “talks” to him about, is a lover from his past–long ago–with whom he spent time in Iceland (hence the lava landscape). It’s the same lover addressed in his poem “Lullaby” (circa 1937). His memory of and feeling or this lover lasted his entire life.

  8. I think this poem is about a lost love and the realization that though love is lost, there are/may be things that are more important from which we can obtain grace and hope. He is alone, we get that from “arms of my own warmth” and “alone though it certainly found me.” Yet, on this stormy, dark, winter day, he is having a quiet, light, spring memory of a lost lover. Thus, I think it is a poem of contrasts: The storminess of the early morning set against the quiet, pastoral calm of the memory he is having of his lost love. The airyness/watery quality of storm’s “speech” set against the “beautiful English” of the devil, that cynical view that there is no hope and innocence and beauty is altogether lost. He is hopeful about life and he is building the case that there is a order to existence by putting first things first: The storm may bring a bittersweet memory, but in the morning (reality), it also brings water, the basic and real sustenance of life.

  9. He awakes at midnight, when the storm is frightening, and he remembers his heartache of love that will not be fullfilled, ever. Yet he hears the storm and knows the power of life continues regardless, even without a space for his love, and he must decide to go on with it or not. And he decides yes, I will, because the water of life gives him hope. Yet be not misled, for the love he knows will never be.

  10. I have read this poem for over thirty years.
    As I said years ago it is about love- not faith , not god, of any kind.
    And it is sparked by Chester Kallman.

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