This essay first appeared on The Dark Mountain Project website.
I was born into an age and circumstances in which the idea of prophecy was highly suspect. My father, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, was an admirer of the philosopher John Dewey and the scientific method. According to him, science had shown us that the only way to predict the future successfully was to identify the correct mathematical equation underlying a given relationship or activity in the physical world. The rest was blind superstition, and through the universal provision of modern education we would ultimately leave it behind.
At the edge of our town there was a flickering neon ‘Psychic Readings’ sign in the cracked window of a decaying clapboard house. I learned from him to read this synecdochically: fortunetelling practiced by hucksters was all that remained of the seers and prophets whose utterances had once guided whole societies.
Poetry, by contrast, was honoured in my parents’ household. Both my mother and father could quote extensively from favorite poems, and sometimes after dinner my father, his professorial beard quivering and his voice deepening to a doomful rumble, would recite Tennyson’s ‘The Splendour Falls’, or Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’.
When I was eight, my grandmother, another literary type, gave me a children’s poetry book called The Looking Glass Book of Verse. It was in this book that I first encountered W. H. Auden. He is represented in the section ‘Voyaging and Travel’ by his poem ‘Epilogue’:
O where are you going? said reader to rider
That valley is fatal where furnaces burn…
As with all the poems I liked, it wasn’t the – in this case – horror-filled meaning of its words that gripped me first, but the sounds and rhythms, which were incantatory. What exactly was being called up, I didn’t know. Following my father’s teaching, the only magic I allowed myself to believe in was the magic of words themselves. Their power to generate images in our minds of what wasn’t actually there.
A speculation on the common origins of poetry and prophecy
An eccentric type of awareness emerged in our species sometime in the remote past.
One of its effects was that we became able to see things that weren’t there, like winged serpents and wheels of fire in the sky, but also the consequences of certain actions, the fulfillment of certain desires. What we call prophecy may have been a means to use this ability, through interpretation by chosen ‘seers’, to strengthen the social and material wellbeing of people. Someone in our small foraging groups had to take on the full burden of reception, extract use-value from all the visions flooding the intricate chambers of our cortices.
The first seers tried to capture their visions on stone. At some unrecorded point, they must have begun to chant and sing as well. Perhaps because that can induce an unusually receptive state in the listeners, perhaps also because larger amounts of information could be remembered and disseminated that way. The chiming sounds, the rhythmic beats are mnemonic, as evidenced by all the nursery rhymes you know.
There is speculation that the earliest chants were songs of praise.
Poets as such came later, with the increasing specialisation of functions in settled societies. They praised kings and warriors, and the beauty of women, instead of animals, earth, or the receding gods. But they also interpreted signs, spoke to people from somewhere beyond their immediate experience and made them feel their connection to the realm from which both the seen and the unseen issued forth.
W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden, born in England but naturalised as a US citizen in 1946, became one of the 20th century Anglophone world’s most celebrated poets. He did this in what may have been the last years of a multi-millennial tradition: poetry as a vocation highly prized by the dominant powers. Honoured, perhaps because of its ancient affiliation, for reasons that Auden had identified when he praised W. B. Yeats:
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives
I don’t believe this is true today. Science and technology – in my lifetime – have collapsed time, debunked any remnant power of incantation, and demonstrated that human power over the material world is the only power that matters.
Of what consequence can it possibly be, then, this persistent idea I have that Auden was a prophet?
When I was a teenager I discovered his ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ in a schoolbook:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…
…and struggled dimly (oh, he’s talking about a painting!) to grasp the overall implication in the mild, almost conversational phrases. I had already learned by then that I was alone, but through the arrangement of just these particular words, I discovered that everyone was. That how we suffer and why we suffer have the same roots.
Years later, I lived in an impoverished country at war, where behind the tinted windows of a nondescript van stuck in traffic on a street lined with stalls full of dance music records and bright, cheap clothing, crowded by shoppers, could have lain someone gagged and bound, lazily tortured as they were being taken away to vanish behind an unmarked door. I saw then how ‘everything turns away… from the disaster’ in order to permit it to unfold. But the cameos by the painter Breughel and the falling Icarus in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ were telling me that this had already been understood long before, and Auden was reporting on it from somewhere outside his time or mine.
After my father died of the sudden onset of an aggressive cancer, and I was sorting through his books, I came across another touchstone Auden poem. I found it in a massive two-volume work called Alienation, by Gerald Sykes, published in 1964. It was a compendium of abridged texts, mostly fiction and poetry, some essays and philosophy, attempting to demonstrate rather than clinically define this pervasive condition of the age.
The poem was one of the entries beside which my father had penciled a small, backwards checkmark (he was left-handed), indicating particular interest. It is Auden at his most apocalyptic:
Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own
Though the roads have almost vanished and the expresses never run.
With its references to silent factories, downed powerlines and ‘smashed trucks lying… across the rails’, I thought it was a premonitory vision of the aftermath of a nuclear war. In the Cold War US, that was the most natural analogy. But Auden had written it after wandering through the depressed North Counties of England in the 1930s. The coal seams that had powered the Industrial Revolution had been emptied, and a whole region had collapsed. The wreckage, like all ruins, pointed to the future as much as the past, to an invisible superstructure of hubris that stretched backward and forward in time indefinitely.
Then at the beginning of the new millennium, when two planes screamed in low over Manhattan and knifed into its two tallest towers, fragments of ‘September 1st, 1939’, which I had first read in college as literature student, came immediately into my head: ‘I sit in one of the dives/ On 52nd Street, uncertain and afraid…’ The poem was written as Hitler’s invasion of Poland began.
The words that followed felt exact to my moment as well: the ‘clever hopes’ of another ‘low, dishonest decade’ had been expunged in another stunning act of inevitable violence, blowback from ‘imperialism’s face/And the international wrong’. And I understood that prophecy, which I had been taught to dismiss as fallacy, was not reducible to prediction of the future. The prophet, the seer, exits the time of clocks and calendars and enters an expanse that tenses, or words of any kind, fail to describe. And must then try to communicate what is discovered there to the rest of his or her social group. Such knowledge and ability underlay many pre-scientific societies. Yet Auden, in the modern West, in the midst of the machine age, still performed this feat.
But if he was a seer, what is it that he saw? For me, one idea emerged from all his best work: the cataclysm, the fall of civilisation, is not imminent but immanent, for good reason: it is embedded in us. Not in the heedlessly magnificent world that made us, but in what we, in defiance of all its infinitely recursive and subtle complexity have become:
…Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the dark
Who have never been happy or good.
This is the simple language of fairy tale, but the wood that appears to me is an impenetrable, indifferent sub-Arctic forest against whose imagined demons the walls of our first settlements began to rise. And then kept on rising long after the forest was parkland and the city a demon-vexed labyrinth of walls, rising until they could surround and cut off every last contingent human soul from every other. Until the “error” of seeking individual over collective fulfillment had been “bred in the bone.”
Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ tells of the nymph Thetis commissioning a shield for her son Achilles, the world’s best warrior, from the blacksmith god Hephaestos. She expects to see ‘marble well-governed cities’ and prosperous groves decorate the shield, but instead the god shows her what war and the environment it creates really look like: ‘a million eyes, a million boots in line’, on ‘a plain without a feature, bare and brown/ no blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood’.
The scene depicted on the shield in the poem is a barely exaggerated one from the poet’s mid-20th century present, but recast as prophecy from the heroic past. And that is of course because across the spans of time since the first walls went up, the bronze was forged, the warriors began to train and the rulers to command, it is what the hopes of every civilisation have come to.
Auden epitomises this scene in the odd oxymoronic phrase ‘an artificial wilderness’. What is that? To my mind it is the built world, where after subduing all other life, we are the haunted and hunted, an environment that has become actively hostile to our own lives. A reductive chaos (warfare is its apotheosis) that replaces the living world’s complex order. It’s notable that there is no separation between the erasure of the living world: ‘no blade of grass’, and the human: ‘no sign of neighbourhood’.
The Age of Anxiety
However, misreading prophecy as prediction, many in every era mistakenly await a discrete event, a climactic Fall – which, as Auden helped me to understand, is not a future state but is always underway and can only ever be seen as complete in a given situation in retrospect. The cataclysm that the powerful fear for themselves they first enact upon others: weaker peoples, other species, living places from which profit can be extracted (but faster these days, as if history, compressed by technology, had become a kind of time-lapse photography: apocalypse now, now, now…)
Where does that leave the rest of us, psychologically? Living within walls we didn’t build and can’t destroy, trying to read the signs without anyone we can trust to interpret them for us, as catastrophe follows catastrophe. Auden, an admirer of Kafka, whom he once described as the Goethe or Shakespeare of his time, titled one of his extended later works ‘The Age of Anxiety’, and that’s as good a name as any.
In the poem where I first encountered him, he was parodying it, but his perception of an underlying biophobic paranoia in modern life is no less apt for that.
O what was that bird, said horror to hearer,
Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?
It appears in other poems; it invades the most intimate minutia of our lives:
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed…
My father was an avatar of that age; he suffered paralysing attacks of anxiety, migraines, fits of uncontrollable and terrifying rage. The stately rhythms of classical music and poetry, the rigorous mathematical bone structure of physics, the idea that the mind itself could be explored, clarified, and healed through reason: these were the lanterns he tried to hold up against that fatal valley full of darkness.
But what if the darkness and the light had the same source? Then reason, awake or asleep, could engender monsters. And it has.
The cancer that killed my father is known as an environmental disease, often linked to exposure to asbestos, once a common feature of the American family home. Used in our walls, for protection from the elements.
Anxiety is the emotional response; alienation is the state of being that generates it. My father’s psychological ailment has also grown to epidemic proportions in this country and elsewhere among the materially comfortable, particularly the young. But all the pathologies Auden revealed at the heart of our civilisation, which is now global, have only continued and intensified since. It is more necessary than ever (as he wrote in 1939) that ‘The lights must never go out/ The music must always play’.
Songs of praise
However, another of Auden’s prophetic insights was about the endurance of the living world, and an admonition to keep faith with it. In ‘The Fall of Rome’, inscrutable animals going about their lives persist beyond the reach of the absurd and disaffected humans, who are no more or less absurd for having power or lacking it, under the shadow of another alienated society (time is conflated again here, between the classical and the contemporary) in inevitable, self-inflicted decline.
But in the un-built world there can be no ruins. In the cosmos outside our echo chamber, nothing gestures; everything is.
Even the best poetry can only point; Auden knew this of course. His best-known aphorism is “Poetry makes nothing happen…” Yes, incantation has been belied by science; words alone do not reshape the material world. It is not, however, the material world that requires our reshaping; it is human perception. There is a gulf between the represented and the real, and we are in freefall within it. The survival of the poetic/prophetic is the survival of the human mind’s oldest and best connection to the world beyond its self-imposed walls.
‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, in which that famous aphorism appears, is perhaps Auden’s summa theologica of poetry. In it he invokes his duty to ‘sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress’. And from the depths of that place of darkness and immanent collective failure to which the poet must journey on behalf of all, but without the constraining and subduing power of command, bring back what could restore us to our souls, and the living world in which they are at home: healing, rejoicing.
There is no future state either to anticipate or fear in this mandate; then and now are one. The final words of the poem: ‘teach the free man how to praise’, are an affirmation that the first songs persist within us, and poets can release them.