6 October 2011

Seventeen

When I was seventeen, they made me stand on the school stage at nine o'clock one morning to recite this poem to the assembled pupils and teachers of Beverley Grammar School in East Yorkshire. I read it clear and I read it true and I still remember all those faces in front of me - a little bit spellbound both by the poem and by my delivery of it. I have always felt comfortable standing on stages like that - an adrenalin rush -and that particular morning I felt quite passionate about the poem I had been asked to convey. It seemed to have something meaningful to say about the dispossessed and the outsiders - even though they were not really represented in that school hall.

REFUGEE BLUES by W.H. Auden

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, "They must die":
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

6 comments:

  1. I always loved auden's face

    like a duvet covered in currents

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  2. JOHN GRAY To me his most familiar face looks gnarled like a well-weathered sailor's face - that's why I also posted a picture of him when he was young - the less remembered Auden - in his prime.

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  3. Thanks - didn't know this poem (not surprising for me!) - but I agree with you, it's wonderful. I think I'll copy it on my blog when I get the chance (I'll send you cpyright payment in due course...).

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  4. He was one of the poets on my A level syllabus and I remember being fascinated by the number of wrinkles on his face.

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  5. I didn't know this poem, but it is powerful. I must read more Auden. I only know three of his poems, really: "The Unknown Citizen" and "Funeral Blues" and "September 1, 1939"....

    I wonder why there is this great gap in my reading?

    For some reason, and I can't put my finger on it, when I think of Auden I also think of Oscar Wilde. Please tell me why (it isn't their homosexuality; I mean literature-wise).

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  6. call me john
    after so long the formality is so like Jane Austen

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