Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

W. H. Auden, fully Wystan Hugh Auden

English-born American Poet, Essayist and Playwright

"Choice of attention - to pay attention to this and ignore that - is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be."

"Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith."

"Civilizations should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained."

"Clear, unscaleable ahead, rise the mountains of instead from whose cold, cascading streams none may drink except in dreams"

"Cold, impossible, ahead lifts the mountain's lovely head whose white waterfall could bless travellers in their last distress."

"Composing mortals with immortal fire."

"Criticism should be a casual conversation."

"Dance till the stars come down from the rafters Dance, Dance, Dance till you drop."

"Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic."

"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."

"Desire, even in its wildest tantrums, can neither persuade me it is love nor stop me from wishing it were."

"Does God judge us by appearances? I Suspect that He does."

"Dogmatic theological statements are neither logical propositions nor poetic utterances. They are "shaggy dog" stories; they have a point, but he who tries too hard to get it will miss it."

"Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle."

"Drama is based on the Mistake. I think someone is my friend when he really is my enemy, that I am free to marry a woman when in fact she is my mother, that this person is a chambermaid when it is a young nobleman in disguise, that this well-dressed young man is rich when he is really a penniless adventurer, or that if I do this such and such a result will follow when in fact it results in something very different. All good drama has two movements, first the making of the mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake."

"Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities…"

"Each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom."

"Eagerly, musician, sweep your string, so we may sing, elated, optative, our several voices interblending, playfully contending, not interfering but co-inhering, for all within the cincture of the sound is holy ground, where all are brothers, none faceless others. Let mortals beware of words, for with words we lie, can say peace when we mean war, foul thought speak fair and promise falsely, but song is true: let music for peace be the paradigm, for peace means to change at the right time, as the world-clock, goes tick and tock. So may the story of our human city presently move like music, when begotten notes new notes beget, making the flowing of time a growing, till what it could be, at last it is, where even sadness is a form of gladness, where fate is freedom, grace and surprise."

"Earth, receive an honored guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. Let the Irish vessel lie emptied of its poetry."

"Embrace me, belly, like a bride."

"Every American poet feels that the whole responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his shoulders, that he is a literary aristocracy of one."

"Every autobiography is concerned with two characters, a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self."

"Every European visitor to the United States is struck by the comparative rarity of what he would call a face, by the frequency of men and women who look like elderly babies. If he stays in the States for any length of time, he will learn that this cannot be put down to a lack of sensibility -- the American feels the joys and sufferings of human life as keenly as anybody else. The only plausible explanation I can find lies in his different attitude to the past. To have a face, in the European sense of the word, it would seem that one must not only enjoy and suffer but also desire to preserve the memory of even the most humiliating and unpleasant experiences of the past."

"Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance."

"Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow."

"Every poet has his dream reader: mine keeps a look out for curious prosodic fauna like bacchics and choriambs."

"Evil is unspectacular and always human and shares our bed and eats at our own table."

"False enchantment can last a lifetime."

"Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud."

"Fate succombs many a species. One alone jeopardizes itself."

"Few people take an interest in Iceland, but in those few the interest is passionate."

"Few writers have had less journalistic talent than James, and this is his defect, for the supreme masters have one trait in common with the childish scribbling mass, the vulgar curiosity of a police-court reporter."

"Follow, poet, follow right to the bottom of the night, with your unconstraining voice still persuade us to rejoice; with the farming of a verse make a vineyard of the curse, sing of human unsuccess in a rapture of distress; in the deserts of the heart let the healing fountain start, in the prison of his days teach the free man how to praise."

"Food was his public love, his private lust"

"For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways."

"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."

"For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?"

"Genealogies are admirable things, provided they do not encourage the curious delusion that some families are older than others."

"''God is Love,'' we are taught as children to believe. But when we first begin to get some inkling of how He loves us, we are repelled; it seems so cold, indeed, not love at all as we understand the word."

"Good can imagine Evil; but Evil cannot imagine Good"

"Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at new styles of architecture, a change of heart."

"He knew human folly like the back of his hand."

"He suffers from one great literary defect, which is often found in lonely geniuses: he never knows when to stop. Lonely people are apt to fall in love with the sound of their own voice, as Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, not out of conceit but out of despair of finding another who will listen and respond."

"He timidly attacked the life he led."

"He was my North, East and West, was the South, a working day, Sunday's garden, the moon, time of night, in the song and conversation. Thought: love will last forever. Deceptive words. Why do I need a star now, every extinguish the moon. Discard the ocean, and the sun break the nebula, Pour ocean, forest brush away from the trees, burn crops, because right now nothing cannot stop."

"He was my North, my South, my East and West, my working week and Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."

"Healing is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature."

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

"'Healing,' Papa would tell me, 'is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature.'"

"Hemingway is terribly limited. His technique is good for short stories, for people who meet once in a bar very late at night, but do not enter into relations. But not for the novel."