Monday, March 26, 2007

"O Tell Me the Truth about Love"

I wanted to post Craig Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home at first, having remembered that it was the first poem my literature teacher brought into class for Practical Criticism. A substantial part of the lesson was spent puzzling over idiosyncratic metaphors, characteristic of Martian poetry. But for now I urgently need to share this poem - the poem that kept me alive throughout my luckless Valentine's night.

O Tell Me The Truth About Love

Some say that love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pajamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does it's odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
it wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all it's time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of it's own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my shoes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

W.H. Auden

The thematic appeal of Auden's ballad derives from its irresistible lilt, its heady forward rhythmic rush, as if in love. (How it is consciously sought after in definition within the poem.) Like pub poetry, the language is simple and conversational. The speaker compares love to many things, particularising it ("soft as eiderdown fluff") and teasing out its character and characteristics, of which among many, is its ubiquitousness ("common topic on/the Transanlantic boats") due to an inherent mutability between objects ("pajamas" or "ham"?) and sometimes, into anthropomorphic entities ("knock on my door in the morning").

However, throughout the poem, love resists definition, plays hide-and-seek ("inside the summer-house/it wasn't even there") and at the end leaves the speaker's calls - in the form of insistent questions in alternating stanzas - unheeded, or at most, incomplete with the refrain
"O tell me the truth about love" crying out impatiently. The speaker's refusal or inability to settle for one precise definition (even when the penultimate line begs plainly for the first time: "Will it alter my life altogether?") speaks much about our human limitations of corralling love under a single pen, as so many poets writing on the subject of love do.

Still, the poem ships into our minds a catalogue of unforgettable images that ranges from the quotidian to the extraordinary, reminding us that when we are in love, love leeches in us like a vector; it hauls us to a greater, fresher signification of itself - just as the gentle undertow of the alternating metre and the cross rhymes could suggest constant revisions about love; such reflections on love, ultimately allows us
to pull through those blind sails, and see our lovers in a new light.

Before I protest too much, O tell me the truth about love.

P.S. Do check out other love poems by Auden, such as Lullaby...

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Anonymous badrobot said...


9:48 AM, March 27, 2007  
Anonymous Dave said...

Thank you for sharing that poem with us. It has a sense of innocence to it. Like this line "When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?" -- almost like a child asking questions about love.

8:06 PM, March 27, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

i have read this poem a long time ago and can only remember a few lines from it. it was written by an american whose name has since been missing from my memory..anyone have a clue?

nothing is ever perfect as you want it to be
you lose your love for her
and it is her who is lost

if only love could be brought in
like a lost kitten
or gathered in
like strawberries
but nothing is ever as perfect
as you want it to be

11:51 PM, March 27, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

enar: it is by Brian Patten. Thanks for sharing this.

2:02 AM, March 28, 2007  
Blogger Kenny Mah said...

Thanks, guys, for both poems. Been too busy too feel sentimental of late, and now it's just the right time. Hmmm....

10:40 PM, March 28, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

i am so glad i finally got the poet's name.been searching for it for along time.thanks!

11:02 PM, March 28, 2007  
Anonymous Antares said...

I'm chuffed to discover such an intense passion for poetry in this blog... and really impressed by your skill with words, Nicholas.
Good thing I got bitten by the blogging bug four months ago... or I would never have known you guys exist!

3:30 AM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

welcome to the team, nic and i really enjoyed your first choice of poem - very playful

7:12 AM, April 02, 2007  
Anonymous Ilsunlad said...

Indeed " O Tell me the truth about Love" is a most interesting poem and Auden has written many many others on a wide variety of subjects. including one on losing a loved one that was used in the movie "4Weddings and a funeral".
For those wishing to learn more about W.H. Auden I would highly recommend a recently published book, "The Age of Auden" by Aidan Wasley.

8:24 AM, March 23, 2012  

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