‘In Praise of Limestone’ by W.H. Auden
When I first encountered this poem a little over a week ago, it caused me problems. From the outset it is a complex landscape poem whose images can be difficult to penetrate. But bear with me, as it is a poem which deserves re-reading and bears fruit when doing so. This post is dedicated to the poem and will hopefully offer readers a way into the poem’s fascinating landscape.
‘Landscape’ being a key word to this poem. Taken quite literally, this poem reads as a dedication to a limestone landscape, with it’s ‘surface fragrance of time’, ‘secret system of caves and conduits’, ‘little ravine whose cliffs entertain/ The butterfly and the lizard’, etc etc. So essentially Auden, like the Romantics before him, has taken the limestone landscape (presumably symbolic of the British landscape which contains lots of limestone) and has written a poem ‘in praise of’ its beauty? This would be a deception and it is a long way away from what Auden is attempting to do in this poem.
If we look at the very first line, Auden’s subject for the poem becomes immediately apparent:
“If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water…”
Proceeding through the poem, we find that this landscape in fact mirrors and symbolises the people which inhabit it, the so-called ‘inconstant ones’. Note how Auden does not use the word ‘limestone’ here, but rather the ambiguous ‘it’ in the first line. Why does he do this?
Another question to pose here is the significance of fact that the limestone ‘dissolves in water’. Why is this significant? The British Isles is known for its limestone landscape which is changed and shaped by the weather. However, as we know, Britain’s climate is moderate and is rarely submitted to extreme weather conditions. This means that the landscape, which dissolves and changes slowly, is used to progressive change. Something which Auden seems to think significant somehow. The poet builds on this image later when he writes:
“…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;
…Their eyes have never looking into infinite space
…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 Auden is basically reminding us of Britain’s temperate climate. It might be a little wet and windy, but we are fortunate, he seems to say. We don’t have to deal with any volcanoes, tsunamis, the wicked beasts of the jungle or such terrors. Fair enough. But so what? Isn’t a poet supposed to tell us something blumming useful?
Well hang around. As mentioned above, the poem discusses the people who inhabit this landscape and actually suggests that their personalities and characteristics are shaped directly by the landscape itself. The first stanza contains an interesting image of a mother and son which is certainly worth discussing:
“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…”
The image is fairly simple and quite charming. But what has it got to do with the landscape? It seems to me that Auden takes the values of the knowing wisdom and loving acceptance of the Mother and carries them over to apply to the landscape. One notable and essential feature of the poem is the personification of the landscape, which is exemplified in descriptions such as ‘the springs/ That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle‘, and this personification certainly at work in this image. Also the progressive nature of the landscape which changes incrementally also makes me think that this is another aspect of the motherly image. Your mother constantly sees you grow on a day to day basis and observes you as you change from an infant crawling around the living room in a nappy with food drooling from your gob into the ‘flirtatious male’ of the poem leaning against a rock almost John Lennon-esque. In the same way the landscape develops with the constantly dissolving, eroding limestone. Also if we think historically about the British Isles, we see this same nature of incremental change being part of our history. We haven’t been successfully invaded (Hoorah!) for God-knows how long. Also, we have never witnessed any civil eruptions in the form of a revolution, unlike those crazy Frenchies back in 1789! The only form of disorder we could think back to is the Civil War but other than that, the British Way is to change the law of the land little by little, year on year. “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “Drink Tea” or whatever the motto is nowadays.
And no wonder he is writing a poem ‘In Praise of’ us, look at how logical and level-headed and just generally great we are! Or not. Auden does not seem wholly impressed by these aspects of our personality. In the first stanza, referring back to the image of the mother and son, he seems to imply that our constant comfort and ease leads to vanity:
“…. 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 easing or pleasing, can easily take.”
In the same stanza, Auden writes of the ‘short distances and definite places’ of the landscape, suggesting that Brits enjoy their stability and comfort and would not like to commit to too much, especially not far-away places. This simplicity is insinuated once more in the second stanza where he refers to
“the band of rivals… engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any importance secrets…”
So basically, being the simple, straightforward folks that we are, when we talk to our rivals we talk at ease because we are far too transparent to keep secrets from one another. This simple-nature is also at fault for our conception of God. During that epoch church numbers were dwindling as people’s religious beliefs waned (probably due to the effects of the World Wars) and so this is an interesting critique of religion during the period. According to Auden, the British are
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay…”
In other words, habituated to our temperate climate, we have never experienced the true extremities of nature or the nature of God which exist in the world, giving us a rather simple conception of Him. If we sin, we can always go to church to sing a few hymns and all will be forgiven. Jolly good! Except not according to Auden, according to whom we seem to be plagued by our insular experience.
“… This is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought,
Immoderate soils where the beauty was no so external…”
The best – people for whom the British existence was too simple – and the worst – people who had sinned and knew they had to repay on earth in a more realistic manner – cannot simply bide their time in this straightforward, basic lifestyle, according to the poet. Instead they have to flee to a foreign climate, symbolised in the poem by ‘the granite wastes’, where things are much tougher and demand more of the human character. The granite landscape, like the landscape, is personified almost in a demon-like manner as it ‘cried’ and ‘purred’ to the reader.
“…”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…”
This distant, foreign landscape offers the trials and tribulations necessary for your personality to grow. The best and the worst of the British desire this challenge and will seek this foreign landscape. Auden himself moved to the United States at the outbreak of WWII in 1939 and perhaps this was Auden challenging himself in foreign climes. Most of us, however, are content with our cosy lives in the UK and fail to grow by challenged ourselves with the granite climate.
By the final stanza, then, Auden appears to have made his mind up about life on the British Isles. Thus he poses the question:
“… A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now?
Judging by what he’s told us already, we feel we already know his answer and might expect him to leave the question as it is, rhetorically. But no, instead he decides the poem with an intriguing:
“… Not quite:”
Has Auden changed his mind? Is he bi-polar or something? What’s wrong with this man!? In the following lines he writes that
“… The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle…”
which, to me at least, means that the poet’s role is simply to state the truth, to tell things as they are. The first thing to note is how this idea of the poet conflicts the ideas of the poets who came before him, particularly the English Romantics such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, etc. For them, the poet is a prophet, somebody able to see truth and beauty in the world which the ordinary man in incapable of viewing. As Shelley put it, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Yet not for Auden. So Auden in this poem is “calling/ The sun the sun” and telling the truth about Britain. This is how it is, but now he seems to be saying that this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing:
“It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question…”
Towards the end of the poem, Auden moves on to discuss the very nature of humanity. Being human, for Auden, is being inconstant. Being unpredictable. Being instinctive. This is a potent message in an era where the advancement of technology and robotics seem to question the indispensability of mankind in the workplace and elsewhere in the world. Yet for Auden
“… 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…”
Thus the poem has changed here from being a critique of British mannerisms and habits to a plea for change, for spontaneity and random actions in day to day life. We must challenge ourselves, place ourselves in difficult situations, visit strange places, do weird things. Why? To improve ourselves as characters. Carpe Diem. “Try everything once except incest and morris dancing” (Arnold Bax). Along those sorts of lines I guess.
“…when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, but what I see is a limestone landscape.”
In the last three lines the poem Auden evokes “the life to come”. What he seems to say is that the “limestone landscape” which he has been discussing and critiquing, is what he seems when envisaging heaven. What? How can he criticise it and then say it’s heavenly?! Well as he has stated earlier in the poem, the limestone landscape of Britain is associate with a certain stability, tranquillity, ease of mind and comfort. A place of rest, almost. While on earth we need to challenge ourselves, achieve something, let ourselves grow by exploring new climates, it is in the afterlife where we should achieve calmness and peace. It thus seems fitting that after many years spent in New York and in Austria exploring the world of ‘granite’, at the end of his life Auden returned to England, perhaps to seek the serene beauty of ‘the [chuckling] springs’, ‘the caves and conduits’ and ‘the murmur/Of underground streams’ that flow through our limestone landscape.
Please note this is just my own reading of the poem and I encourage you to dig deeper that I have, exploring the poem’s landscape in the same way Auden urges us to explore the granite landscape of foreign climes.
Thanks for reading!