Sunday, August 23, 2015

Recitative By Death

The following poem is the second of Auden's "Two Don Quixote Lyrics". The first, entitled "The Golden Age", is a little piece of doggerel that describes the Golden Age and its subsequent decline. In 1963, Auden and Chester Kallman had been asked to write lyrics for the musical, The Man of La Mancha (imagining how it would have turned out, if he actually did write the lyrics, is not a little amusing). But, their version was not actually used in the musical. 

Auden and Kallman
Kallman and Auden met in 1939 and began what Auden called his marriage, even though after a few years, their sexual relationship ended, when Kallman no longer wished to practice monogamy. Nevertheless, they remained partners till Auden's death, maintaining various households together and collaborating upon various works. 

In 1951, the widow, Thekla Clark, and her young daughter became a part of their entourage on Ischia. In her memoirs, Mrs. Clark reports how Auden had a great fondness for her daughter, and at one point, 

He and his small friend once had "a dreadful row" over who was going to play Mrs. Tiggywinkle in one of their elaborate games, a dispute finally settled by Kallman, who "declared that Wystan, with his feet, could only be Jemima Puddleduck." (
Such anecdotes, I think, help us to appreciate the man who, though he claimed never to have finished Don Quixote, nevertheless deeply loved the character and gave many lectures on the book throughout his life. As with a child's imaginative play or Don Quixote's madness, there is a kind of playful seriousness to Auden's work. He may write a "Recitative by Death", but it is free of gloom and heavy handedness (contrast this with Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal). Auden's death is a liberal, a progressive and a charmer who, while maintaining his own euphemistic polish, slices through the lies and circumlocution of modernity. He is contradictory and terribly funny.

Recitative by Death

Ladies and gentlemen, you have made most remarkable
  Progress, and progress, I agree is a boon;
You have built more automobiles than are parkable,
  Crashed the sound-barrier, and may very soon
  Be setting up juke-boxes on the Moon:
But I beg to remind you that, despite all that, 
I, Death, still am and will always be Cosmocrat. 

Still I sport with the young and daring; at my whim,
  The climber steps upon the rotten boulder,
The undertow catches boys as they swim,
  The speeder steers onto the slippery shoulder:
  With others I wait until they are older
Before assigning, according to my humor
To one a coronary, to one a tumor.

Liberal my views upon religion and race;
  Tax-posture, credit-rating, social ambition
Cut no ice with me. We shall meet face to face,
  Despite the drugs and lies of your physician,
  The costly euphemisms of the mortician:
Westchester matron and Bowery bum,
Both shall dance with me when I rattle my drum.

December 1963 

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