Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

W. H. Auden, fully Wystan Hugh Auden

English-born American Poet, Essayist and Playwright

"Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh."

"It is axiomatic that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time: conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction."

"It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it."

"Man desires to be free and he desires to feel important. This places him in a dilemma, for the more he emancipates himself from necessity the less important he feels."

"We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

"A verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become."

"All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie, the romantic lie in the brain of the sensual man-in-the-street and the lie of Authority whose buildings grope the sky: there is no such thing as the State and no one exists alone; hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police; we must love one another or die."

"Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods."

"Between friends differences in taste or opinion are irritating in direct proportion to their triviality."

"Certain sins manifests themselves as their mirror opposites which the sinner is able to persuade himself are virtues. Thus Gluttony can manifest itself as Daintiness, Lust as Prudery, Sloth and Senseless Industry, Envy as Hero Worship."

"Geniuses are the luckiest of mortals because what they must do is the same as what they most want to do."

"Goodness is easier to recognize than to define."

"If we really want to live, we'd better start at once to try; If we don't it doesn't matter, we'd better start to die."

"In life, unlike a game, the loser's score is always zero."

"Machines are beneficial to the degree that they eliminate the need for labor, harmful to the degree that they eliminate the need for skill."

"The ears tends to be lazy, craves the familiar, and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition."

"The relation of faith between subject and object is unique in every case. Hundreds may believe, but each has to believe by himself."

"To save your world you asked this man to die: Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?"

"What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs."

"I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night. Accurate scholarship can Unearth the whole offence From Luther until now That has driven a culture mad, Find what occurred at Linz, What huge imago made A psychopathic god: I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return. Exiled Thucydides knew All that a speech can say About Democracy, And what dictators do, The elderly rubbish they talk To an apathetic grave; Analysed all in his book, The enlightenment driven away, The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again. Into this neutral air Where blind skyscrapers use Their full height to proclaim The strength of Collective Man, Each language pours its vain Competitive excuse: But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism's face And the international wrong. Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good. The windiest militant trash Important Persons shout Is not so crude as our wish: What mad Nijinsky wrote About Diaghilev Is true of the normal heart; For the error bred in the bone Of each woman and each man Craves what it cannot have, Not universal love But to be loved alone. From the conservative dark Into the ethical life The dense commuters come, Repeating their morning vow; 'I will be true to the wife, I'll concentrate more on my work,' And helpless governors wake To resume their compulsory game: Who can release them now, Who can reach the dead, Who can speak for the dumb? All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die. Defenseless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame."

"Looking up at the stars, I know quite well That, for all they care, I can go to hell, But on earth indifference is the least We have to dread from man or beast. How should we like it were stars to burn With a passion for us we could not return? If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me. Admirer as I think I am Of stars that do not give a damn, I cannot, now I see them, say I missed one terribly all day. Were all stars to disappear or die, I should learn to look at an empty sky And feel its total dark sublime, Though this might take me a little time."

"Funeral Blues - Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeropanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead. Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods; For nothing now can ever come to any good"

"As I walked out one evening, Walking down Bristol Street, The crowds upon the pavement Were fields of harvest wheat. And down by the brimming river I heard a lover sing Under an arch of the railway: "Love has no ending. "I'll love you, dear, I'll love you Till China and Africa meet, And the river jumps over the mountain And the salmon sing in the street, "I'll love till the ocean Is folded and hung up to dry And the seven stars go squawking Like geese about the sky. "The years shall run like rabbits, For in my arms I hold The Flower of the Ages, And the first love of the world." But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime: "O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time. "In the burrows of the Nightmare Where Justice naked is, Time watches from the shadow And coughs when you would kiss. "In headaches and in worry Vaguely life leaks away, And Time will have his fancy Tomorrow or today. "Into many a green valley Drifts the appalling snow; Time breaks the threaded dances And the diver's brilliant bow. "O plunge your hands in water, Plunge them in up to the wrist; Stare, stare in the basin And wonder what you've missed. "The glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the teacup opens A lane to the land of the dead. "Where the beggars raffle the banknotes And the Giant is enchanting to Jack, And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer, And Jill goes down on her back. "O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress; Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless. "O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbor With all your crooked heart." It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone; The clocks had ceased their chiming, And the deep river ran on."

"A knave is one who disobeys the imperatives of conscience; a fool is one who cannot hear or understand them."

"Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity."

"Health is the state about which medicine has nothing to say: sanctity is the state about which theology has nothing to say."

"Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind."

"No human being can make another one happy."

"The center that I cannot find is known to my unconscious mind."

"We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

"A child's reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, 'I know what I like,'he is really saying 'I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu', because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read."

"A craftsman knows in advance what the finished result will be, while the artist knows only what it will be when he has finished it. But it is unbecoming in an artist to talk about inspiration; that is the reader's business."

"A crowd of ordinary decent folk watched from without and neither moved nor spoke as three pale figures were led forth and bound to three posts driven upright in the ground."

"A culture is no better than its woods."

"A daydream is a meal at which images are eaten. Some of us are gourmets, some gourmands, and a good many take their images precooked out of a can and swallow them down whole, absent-mindedly and with little relish."

"A dead man who never caused others to die seldom rates a statue."

"A doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist. This means that in order to be a good doctor a man must also have a good character, that is to say, whatever weaknesses and foibles he may have, he must love his fellow human beings in the concrete and desire their good before his own."

"A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime."

"A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

"A god who is both self-sufficient and content to remain so could not interest us enough to raise the question of his existence."

"A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless."

"A man is a form of life that dreams in order to act and acts in order to dream."

"A million eyes, a million boots in line, without expression, waiting for a sign."

"A person incapable of imaging another world than given to him by his senses would be subhuman, and a person who identifies his imaginary world with the world of sensory fact has become insane."

"A poet can write about a man slaying a dragon, but not about a man pushing a button that releases a bomb."

"A poet feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked by an event is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship."

"A poet is a professional maker of verbal objects."

"A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language."

"A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue, which is always being corrupted. When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over."

"A poet's hope to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere."