More than one side to every story–the dovetailing roles of reader and hero in a poem by W. H. Auden

I am a devout reader of fiction, poetry, sometimes plays, occasionally essays, even once in a while catching sight of the back of a cereal box that for some reason or other merits my attention.  And I’m always trying to situate or re-situate myself in relation to what I read, what I learn, and what I have learned to celebrate.  This is why, perhaps, a particular poem by W. H. Auden has so earned my allegiance, though whether or not he himself would think it one of his rhetorically best, I don’t know.  What I appreciate most about it is its imagistic succinctness and suggestive power, and its ability to use very conventional poetic and writerly tactics and techniques to tell a thematic story.

For, the story in this poem is less about the events and actions contained therein, and more about the opposed voices, each playing its role in the poem, with the hero’s voice speaking penultimately, which gives it a certain force.  As will be familiar to lots of readers, he (or she) speaks best who speaks last, or so many an argument would have us believe.  The only thing after the hero’s last speech is a “stage direction” in the quizzical, mysterious, external voice–external, that is, to the quarrel–and this leaves us wondering if in fact it is after all the hero who has won the argument, or if the poem itself encapsulates the constant back and forth of the hero’s actions and the reader who demands action of the hero, with the “he” in the final line being the reader of the poem itself.  But enough of my being mysterious–here’s the poem, with its rhyming, sing-song, alliterative and assonantal qualities in full swing:

“‘O where are you going?’ said reader to rider,/’That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,/Yonder’s the midden whose odors will madden,/That gap is the grave where the tall return.’/

‘O do you imagine,’ said fearer to farer,/’That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,/Your diligent looking discover the lacking/Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?’/

‘O what was that bird,’ said horror to hearer,/’Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?/Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,/The spot on your skin is a shocking disease?’/

‘Out of this house’–said rider to reader/’Yours never will’–said farer to fearer/’They’re looking for you’–said hearer to horror/As he left them there, as he left them there.”

As should be apparent from perusing the poem carefully, the “reader,” “fearer,” and “horror” (or perhaps “feeler of horror”) are aligned in passive observation on one side of the situation, whereas the “rider,” “farer,” and “hearer” are aligned in action on the other.  The first voices, which occupy the first three stanzas, are cautionary and fearful, warning and pointing out dangers (real or imagined) of the hero’s destiny.  In the final stanza, the hero (or the “rider,” “farer,” and “hearer”) answers the previous stanzas one by one.  Where is he going?  “Out of this house.”  As to whether or not his “footsteps” will successfully fulfill their destiny by defying adversity, the “farer” is able to say at least to the apparently stay-at-home “fearer”:  “Yours never will.”  When the purveyor of “horror” in the third stanza attempts to scare either sense or timidity–whichever it is–into the “hearer,” to this the “hearer” retorts in the fourth stanza “They’re looking for you,” meaning something perhaps like what Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar, that “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once,” or perhaps as in the lines of F. D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

There’s a final bit of mystery in the last line, as I indicated before, as to who exactly is speaking in the non-quotation mark enclosed last line.  One possibility, if one reads it as following directly from the tail end of the line before it, says that the “hearer” is the one who “left them there,” whoever “they” might be.  Does it mean that the “hearer” left the “horror” (or again, the horrified spectator, perhaps the aghast reader) to the not-so-tender mercies of the “bird,” “shape,” “figure,” and “shocking disease,” or is there some other person or speaker being identified who left the two interior voices alone with their quarrel?  Or is it both things at once, as can happen in literature in general, because it is a magical realm (and nothing more magical than a poem like this one, in which so many and various things are being hinted at once)?

Whatever readers may make of this poem’s hints and intimations, its arch and exaggerated playfulness with word sounds and rhythms, one thing is for sure:  it is a work of art, made by one of the major poets of the twentieth century, and has earned its place amid many another of Auden’s poems by its quality of an elevated teasing out of the special relationship obtaining between the reader (or spectator) and the writer (or actor).  It is the poem I think of every time I have trouble trying to understand another poem, whether or not of Auden’s, and a poem I find myself turning to again and again for the sheer love of its sound and the dance it leads my mind through the figures of.  I hope my readers have enjoyed exploring this poem with me, and have gained something from my suggestions, tentative though some of them must necessarily be.  Now if only it’s not necessary entirely to rid myself of that delicious readerly apprehension for the good of a hero or character which Auden seems to be joshing his own readers about!  But I don’t for a minute think that he would have gotten rid of that reaction in reality:  what else keeps readers coming back for more, if not for the traps and conundrums set them by writers and poets???

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

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