the condition of music

Dec 10, 2020 poetry appreciation

Walter Pater says somewhere or other, I forget where, that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. He continues, “For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.” What I take from this is something about the relationship between form and content: how in the best poems the equation is not form plus content = meaning, but form times content = impact/connection/experience. And this week’s poem seems to me to be one which ‘aspires’ successfully. Have a read of ‘As I Walked Out One Evening‘ by Auden, and see what you think.

Because this is one of those poems I don’t want to dissect. I don’t apprehend it with the intellect, or not initially, but rather through feeling. It speaks to me not in words, somehow, although it’s made of words, but directly to my heart, my guts, my spirit. I feel something, very powerfully, in response. Thus though I can see that Auden’s choice of form and diction have a very ballad-y, folk-tale-y quality which fits perfectly such a timeless tale of the passage from innocence to experience—the apprehension of the truth that nothing human lasts; and though, when I stop and think about it, I’m left slack-jawed with wonder, joy and (let’s face it) envy at Auden’s unsurpassed command of imagery—I mean, just about every line shines and sings and surprises you even as you realise it’s showing you something you already know; and though I rejoice in the simple truth at which the poem arrives—that in the end we can only ‘love [our] crooked neighbour/ With [our] crooked heart.’… Still, none of that needs to be said. If you surrender yourself to this poem, it will take you through the range of human emotion without you having to engage your brain at all. The form is the content. Is the form. Is the content…

Reading this poem I think of those lines from Larkin’s ‘For Sidney Bechet‘: ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should,/ Like an enormous yes’. That’s what happens when I read ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’. I read it, and I look up with shining eyes and say, slowly and quietly, Yes.

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