Poetry

Humpty Dumpty

W. H. Auden

Dawn rose for hunting, trampling on the hills,
Pushing the shadows down from lower ridges,
Till one stood up and bared itself for glory,
A clear horizon, and a single tree
With dancing ring of children who would carry
May to the village underneath them soon.
Above them were the fells, the unused day,
Cloaked shepherds motionless among their sheep
Like Monoliths amid a ring of boulders,
Below a world about to stretch itself ….
Noon followed in the valley presently,
Where trees were darkly cool as under water,
And Lovers in the shadow of stone idols
Stirred not till evening touched them, and they saw
Flushed necks of waterfalls far-off, that spouted
From hanging valleys; Death seemed no more than
The echo of an axe, and life so lovely
Time’s snarl sank in his throat to leave him staring,
And Change froze with his mattock in the air.

“Let the day perish wherein I was born.”
(Some derelict had found the shady wall
A comfortable spot to curse his day in)
Words made the Watcher face about and turn
On Wonderland the backside of indifference,
To scrutinize a world of slag-tips, chimneys
More eloquent of Death than cypresses.
Kilns, truncated cones expressive of
Endeavour and the throwing up of hands,

Squat tenements in streets that imitate
Infinity but never get so far.
Houses were dumb till wind blew doors away,
Displaying fragments fitted into frames;
Bald heads like bloated spiders chasing crowns
And pennies with the pubic furtiveness
Of small boys’ conversation in latrines:
A poet prattling prettily of love,
Indulging his plush insincerity,
His gulping courage, and his sexual day-dreams,
And all his facile armament of tears.
Soon there were lights in many windows; of
Cathedrals where a choirister’s sweet treble
Brought moisture to a curate’s nether lip,
Of village churches mouldering by the sea
Where gentlewomen and a North-East wind
Piped tunes to set a devil capering,
Of colleges where intellectuals
Oped magic casements with Columbus tales
Of Alfred Douglas and the Prince of Wales.

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Could not –” His head fell forward and he dreamed
Of equilibrium and a noiseless fall
Which shattered and said nothing till the grass
Had spelled forgetfulness upon the spot.
The merchants and the hairpin kings forsook
Their palaces: There were no pipes in doorways,
Cranks stiffened like the clenched fist of a corpse,
And sheds were silent save when a cinder
Dripped through the bars of furnaces and sizzled.
The kings went crawling on their hands and knees
(Their top hats lost on brambles long ago
Their tethered motors rusting under trees),
Calling – “Sing us one of the songs of Sion –”
– “What’s one and one and one and one and one?”
And making Tom o’ Bedlam at the edge of Things
Turn back his face from the Abyss and gibber.
Some found the wall but cut their fingers on it,
For there was bottle glass along the top
And they were lost and it was growing dark,
The trickling laugh of water seemed a sneer.
Death touched them in the pressure of a leaf
And dug them nearer their Antipodes;
Some with carved water jugs and scrolls upon them
To keep them in the verger’s memory,
And some there were had no memorial
But hearts and arrows cut in trees and stones,
And marks in books of Public Libraries.
No dog barked in the lampless valleys now,
In the silent valleys of broken chimneys
Where waterwheels had lost the use of hands.
There was no gateway now into the valleys
But crazy tramlines and a choked canal.
A moon sailed skyward, frailly sad, to look
Upon a world that guttered and went out.

He woke and rubbed his eyelids puzzled by
Persistent questions pines and chimneys ask,
These tautomeric changes in the mind,
Our palimpsests upon reality,
These worlds which we already knit the shrouds for
To be replaced, till one day or the next
There comes an end of worlds and an Eternity
Goes with them, but not yet; while crocuses
And waltzes still have something to recall
Of Adam’s brow, and of the wounded heel.


This previously unpublished poem was written during the summer of 1926, when Auden was nineteen years old.

W. H. Auden was an Anglo-American poet.
Originally published:
January 1, 1993

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