Resources for Loss

“Canzone” by W.H. Auden, contributed by Will Edwards (TF, 2023)

Canzone / W.H. Auden

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.

I was originally drawn to this poem many years ago for its mystifying but unforgettable opening ("we cannot choose what we are free to love") and closing ("there must be sorrow if there can be love"). In those two statements, W.H. Auden encapsulates two major paradoxes of attachment: its role in both undermining and fulfilling one’s sense of personal freedom and its inextricable bond to the experience of loss. And yet between these lines there are 62 others that constitute some audaciously dense poetry. What compelled Auden in the face of such intractable truths to turn to the rigid metrical scheme of the canzone and deploy such a wide array of images? The reader can only look on as the poem struggles (and succeeds!) in making meaning and beauty under the weight of its formal constraints and the urgency of its subject matter. 

When I first noticed the epigraph on our syllabus by Margaret Renkl (“The shadow side of love is always loss”), I suspected that this poem would likely fit with the themes of “Loss.” It was only later that I discovered other, unexpected correspondences between Auden’s poem and many of the other “Resources for Loss.” Like reading “Canzone,” the acknowledgment of loss requires considerable effort and discipline, and in the end neither propose any definitive solutions to their respective challenges. And yet both are none the less worthwhile pursuits, capable of instructing, surprising, and comforting all at once. For this reason, they are both worth sharing, as well.

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