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W. H. Auden's "Canzone"

Updated on September 30, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

W. H. Auden

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Canzone"

W. H. Auden's "Canzone" features five 12-line stanzas and a final cinquain, 5-line stanza. The speaker expounds poetically yet philosophically about the vicissitudes of the human condition.

A remarkable feature of W. H. Auden's "Canzone" is that instead of a rime scheme each line ends with one of the following words: day, love, know, will, world.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Canzone

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love?
Although the mouse we banished yesterday
Is an enraged rhinoceros today,
Our value is more threatened than we know:
Shabby objections to our present day
Go snooping round its outskirts; night and day
Faces, orations, battles, bait our will
As questionable forms and noises will;
Whole phyla of resentments every day
Give status to the wild men of the world
Who rule the absent-minded and this world.

We are created from and with the world
To suffer with and from it day by day:
Whether we meet in a majestic world
Of solid measurements or a dream world
Of swans and gold, we are required to love
All homeless objects that require a world.
Our claim to own our bodies and our world
Is our catastrophe. What can we know
But panic and caprice until we know
Our dreadful appetite demands a world
Whose order, origin, and purpose will
Be fluent satisfaction of our will?

Drift, Autumn, drift; fall, colours, where you will:
Bald melancholia minces through the world.
Regret, cold oceans, the lymphatic will
Caught in reflection on the right to will:
While violent dogs excite their dying day
To bacchic fury; snarl, though, as they will,
Their teeth are not a triumph for the will
But utter hesitation. What we love
Ourselves for is our power not to love,
To shrink to nothing or explode at will,
To ruin and remember that we know
What ruins and hyaenas cannot know.

If in this dark now I less often know
That spiral staircase where the haunted will
Hunts for its stolen luggage, who should know
Better than you, beloved, how I know
What gives security to any world.
Or in whose mirror I begin to know
The chaos of the heart as merchants know
Their coins and cities, genius its own day?
For through our lively traffic all the day,
In my own person I am forced to know
How much must be forgotten out of love,
How much must be forgiven, even love.

Dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit, O dear love,
In the depths of myself blind monsters know
Your presence and are angry, dreading Love
That asks its image for more than love;
The hot rampageous horses of my will,
Catching the scent of Heaven, whinny: Love
Gives no excuse to evil done for love,
Neither in you, nor me, nor armies, nor the world
Of words and wheels, nor any other world.
Dear fellow-creature, praise our God of Love
That we are so admonished, that no day
Of conscious trial be a wasted day.

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
Loose ends and jumble of our common world,
And stuff and nonsense of our own free will;
Or else our changing flesh may never know
There must be sorrow if there can be love.

Commentary

First Stanza: "When shall we learn, what should be clear as day"

The first two lines state a claim that is framed, however, as a question; the speaker insists that humans should know, because it so obvious, that "we cannot choose what we are free to love."

The speaker then supplies a conundrum: we might extinguish a small annoyance such as a tiny mouse from our home, but then before we know it, a more significant one threatens us. The mouse transforms into a rhinoceros.

A conglomerate of tribulations align to confront us as "[f]aces, orations, battles bait our will"; we experience resentments every day, but more urgently and more problematic is the fact that "wild men" command "the absent-minded and this world."

Second Stanza: "We are created from and with the world"

The speaker becomes quite philosophical, remarking ontologically, "We are created from and with the world / To suffer with and from it day by day." He insists that "we are required to love / All homeless objects that require a world."

Of course, everything requires a world and the speaker asserts that whether the subject is the physical level or a dream world, the requirement to love operates as a guiding principle. He insists that our attachment to delusion drives our mistakes and thus we know only "panic and caprice." The speaker considers how our dreadful appetite demands a world that will satisfy not only that appetite but also the liquid nature of our will.

Third Stanza: "Drift, Autumn, drift; fall, colours, where you will"

The third stanza focuses on human will employing Autumn as a metaphor for the stage of human life when one's harvests are being readied. Through "bald melancholia" we experience "regret, cold oceans, the lymphatic will." Through violence and drink, many exert their will and find no triumph but instead utter hesitation.

Often, the human-deluded mind learns that "What we love / Ourselves for is our power not to love." But eventually, human beings must take responsibility if only for the fact of their evolutionary station, for the human always knows what "hyaenas cannot know."

Fourth Stanza: "If in this dark now I less often know"

The speaker enters the poem as an individual for the first time in this stanza. In the first through third stanzas, he has created a murky world filled with delusive human beings acting irrationally out of ignorance and selfishness.

The speaker addresses his beloved, essentially stating, but again framing it as a question, that his beloved is well aware of his lack of ultimate understanding. He emotes, "who should know / Better than you, beloved, how I know / What gives security to any world."

Yet the speaker does come to a clear realization when he avers, "In my own person I am forced to know / How much must be forgotten out of love, / How much must be forgiven, even love." The importance of love and will cannot be overstated, and the speaker frames his understanding in almost epic terms.

Fifth Stanza: "Dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit, O dear love"

Addressing representatives of each of the three worlds (or levels of being): "Dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit," the speaker essentially is revealing his dramatic peroration.

While blind monsters of physical desires try to usurp the higher, moral mind and soul, and cause him the indignity of "dreading Love / That asks its image for more than Love," his will becomes hostage to "hot rampageous horses. "

But the speaker knows, "Love / Gives no excuse to evil done for love." And he insists that this principle operates on all levels of existence. Thus he offers a prayer for his fellow human being: Dear fellow-creature, "praise our God of Love / That we are so admonished, that no day / Of conscious trial be a wasted day." This speaker is grateful for living holy scripture that offers guidance for abiding in this hostile world.

Final Cinquain: "Or else we make a scarecrow of the day"

The final cinquain avers that duality is real, that, "There must be sorrow if there can be love." But this knowledge should not be used to make "a scarecrow of the day." If we fail to employ the power of the will to love divinely, we make "stuff and nonsense of our own free will."

Final Comment

The poem is interestingly titled, "Canzone," which means "song" in Italian. The sentiment of the piece is, indeed, the stuff of song, yet its execution more resembles a philosophical treatise or essay.

Yet with this piece as well as with many other poems, Auden's facility with fashioning a poem from non-poetic material creates many memorable lines that will remain with many readers for a lifetime.

Documentary: W. H. Auden - Tell Me The Truth About Love

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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