Wystan Hugh Auden

The Hard Question

To ask the hard question is simple:
Asked at a meeting
With the simple glance of acquaintance
To what these go
And how these do;
To ask the hard question is simple,
The simple act of the confused will.

But the answer
Is hard and hard to remember:
On steps or on shore
The ears listening
To words at meeting,
The eyes looking
At the hands helping,
Are never sure
Of what they learn
From how these things are done,
And forgetting to listen or see
Makes forgetting easy,
Only remembering the method of remembering,
Remembering only in another way,
Only the strangely exciting lie,
To remember what the fish ignored,
How the bird escaped, or if the sheep obeyed.

Till, losing memory,
Bird, fish, and sheep are ghostly,
And ghosts must do again
What gives them pain.
Cowardice cries
For windy skies,
Coldness for water,
Obedience for a master.

Shall memory restore
The steps and the shore,
The face and the meeting place;
Shall the bird live,
Shall the fish dive,
And sheep obey
In a sheep’s way;
Can love remember
The question and the answer,
For love recover
What has been dark and rich and warm all over?


Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973), was an Anglo-American poet, born in England, later an American citizen, regarded by many critics as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His work is noted for its stylistic and technical achievements, its engagement with moral and political issues, and its variety of tone, form and content. The central themes of his poetry are love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.

Auden grew up in and near Birmingham in a professional middle-class family and read English literature at Christ Church, Oxford. His early poems, written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, alternated between telegraphic modern styles and fluent traditional ones, were written in an intense and dramatic tone, and established his reputation as a left-wing political poet and prophet. He became uncomfortable in this role in the later 1930s, and abandoned it after he moved to the United States in 1939, where he became an American citizen in 1946. His poems in the 1940s explored religious and ethical themes in a less dramatic manner than his earlier works, but still combined traditional forms and styles with new forms devised by Auden himself. In the 1950s and 1960s many of his poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions, and he took a particular interest in writing opera librettos, a form ideally suited to direct expression of strong feelings.


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