Skip to main content

W. H. Auden's "Canzone" and "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Canzone"

W. H. Auden's "Canzone" features five 12-line stanzas and a final cinquain, 5-line stanza. The speaker expounds poetically yet philosophically about the vicissitudes of the human condition.

A remarkable feature of W. H. Auden's "Canzone" is that instead of a traditional rime scheme each line ends with one of the following words: day, love, know, will, world.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Canzone

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love?
Although the mouse we banished yesterday
Is an enraged rhinoceros today,
Our value is more threatened than we know:
Shabby objections to our present day
Go snooping round its outskirts; night and day
Faces, orations, battles, bait our will
As questionable forms and noises will;
Whole phyla of resentments every day
Give status to the wild men of the world
Who rule the absent-minded and this world.

We are created from and with the world
To suffer with and from it day by day:
Whether we meet in a majestic world
Of solid measurements or a dream world
Of swans and gold, we are required to love
All homeless objects that require a world.
Our claim to own our bodies and our world
Is our catastrophe. What can we know
But panic and caprice until we know
Our dreadful appetite demands a world
Whose order, origin, and purpose will
Be fluent satisfaction of our will?

Drift, Autumn, drift; fall, colours, where you will:
Bald melancholia minces through the world.
Regret, cold oceans, the lymphatic will
Caught in reflection on the right to will:
While violent dogs excite their dying day
To bacchic fury; snarl, though, as they will,
Their teeth are not a triumph for the will
But utter hesitation. What we love
Ourselves for is our power not to love,
To shrink to nothing or explode at will,
To ruin and remember that we know
What ruins and hyaenas cannot know.

If in this dark now I less often know
That spiral staircase where the haunted will
Hunts for its stolen luggage, who should know
Better than you, beloved, how I know
What gives security to any world.
Or in whose mirror I begin to know
The chaos of the heart as merchants know
Their coins and cities, genius its own day?
For through our lively traffic all the day,
In my own person I am forced to know
How much must be forgotten out of love,
How much must be forgiven, even love.

Dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit, O dear love,
In the depths of myself blind monsters know
Your presence and are angry, dreading Love
That asks its image for more than love;
The hot rampageous horses of my will,
Catching the scent of Heaven, whinny: Love
Gives no excuse to evil done for love,
Neither in you, nor me, nor armies, nor the world
Of words and wheels, nor any other world.
Dear fellow-creature, praise our God of Love
That we are so admonished, that no day
Of conscious trial be a wasted day.

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
Loose ends and jumble of our common world,
And stuff and nonsense of our own free will;
Or else our changing flesh may never know
There must be sorrow if there can be love.

Commentary

The speaker is expounding poetically yet philosophically about the vicissitudes of the human condition.

First Stanza: Learning the Obvious

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love?
Although the mouse we banished yesterday
Is an enraged rhinoceros today,
Our value is more threatened than we know:
Shabby objections to our present day
Go snooping round its outskirts; night and day
Faces, orations, battles, bait our will
As questionable forms and noises will;
Whole phyla of resentments every day
Give status to the wild men of the world
Who rule the absent-minded and this world.

The first two lines state a claim that is framed, however, as a question; the speaker insists that humans should know, because it so obvious, that "we cannot choose what we are free to love."

The speaker then supplies a conundrum: we might extinguish a small annoyance such as a tiny mouse from our home, but then before we know it, a more significant one threatens us. The mouse transforms into a rhinoceros. A conglomerate of tribulations align to confront us as "[f]aces, orations, battles bait our will"; we experience resentments every day, but more urgently and more problematic is the fact that "wild men" command "the absent-minded and this world."

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Second Stanza: Ontological Philosophy

We are created from and with the world
To suffer with and from it day by day:
Whether we meet in a majestic world
Of solid measurements or a dream world
Of swans and gold, we are required to love
All homeless objects that require a world.
Our claim to own our bodies and our world
Is our catastrophe. What can we know
But panic and caprice until we know
Our dreadful appetite demands a world
Whose order, origin, and purpose will
Be fluent satisfaction of our will?

The speaker becomes quite philosophical, remarking ontologically, "We are created from and with the world / To suffer with and from it day by day." He insists that "we are required to love / All homeless objects that require a world."

Of course, everything requires a world and the speaker asserts that whether the subject is the physical level or a dream world, the requirement to love operates as a guiding principle. He insists that our attachment to delusion drives our mistakes and thus we know only "panic and caprice."

The speaker considers how our dreadful appetite demands a world that will satisfy not only that appetite but also the liquid nature of our will.

Third Stanza: Human Will

Drift, Autumn, drift; fall, colours, where you will:
Bald melancholia minces through the world.
Regret, cold oceans, the lymphatic will
Caught in reflection on the right to will:
While violent dogs excite their dying day
To bacchic fury; snarl, though, as they will,
Their teeth are not a triumph for the will
But utter hesitation. What we love
Ourselves for is our power not to love,
To shrink to nothing or explode at will,
To ruin and remember that we know
What ruins and hyaenas cannot know.

The third stanza focuses on human will employing Autumn as a metaphor for the stage of human life when one's harvests are being readied. Through "bald melancholia" we experience "regret, cold oceans, the lymphatic will." Through violence and drink, many exert their will and find no triumph but instead utter hesitation.

Often, the human-deluded mind learns that "What we love / Ourselves for is our power not to love." But eventually, human beings must take responsibility if only for the fact of their evolutionary station, for the human always knows what "hyaenas cannot know."

Fourth Stanza: The Profundity of Love and Will

If in this dark now I less often know
That spiral staircase where the haunted will
Hunts for its stolen luggage, who should know
Better than you, beloved, how I know
What gives security to any world.
Or in whose mirror I begin to know
The chaos of the heart as merchants know
Their coins and cities, genius its own day?
For through our lively traffic all the day,
In my own person I am forced to know
How much must be forgotten out of love,
How much must be forgiven, even love.

The speaker enters the poem as an individual for the first time in this stanza. In the first through third stanzas, he has created a murky world filled with delusive human beings acting irrationally out of ignorance and selfishness.

The speaker addresses his beloved, essentially stating, but again framing it as a question, that his beloved is well aware of his lack of ultimate understanding. He emotes, "who should know / Better than you, beloved, how I know / What gives security to any world."

Yet the speaker does come to a clear realization when he avers, "In my own person I am forced to know / How much must be forgotten out of love, / How much must be forgiven, even love." The importance of love and will cannot be overstated, and the speaker frames his understanding in almost epic terms.

Fifth Stanza: Three Levels of Being

Dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit, O dear love,
In the depths of myself blind monsters know
Your presence and are angry, dreading Love
That asks its image for more than love;
The hot rampageous horses of my will,
Catching the scent of Heaven, whinny: Love
Gives no excuse to evil done for love,
Neither in you, nor me, nor armies, nor the world
Of words and wheels, nor any other world.
Dear fellow-creature, praise our God of Love
That we are so admonished, that no day
Of conscious trial be a wasted day.

Addressing representatives of each of the three worlds (or levels of being): "Dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit," the speaker essentially is revealing his dramatic peroration. While blind monsters of physical desires try to usurp the higher, moral mind and soul, and cause him the indignity of "dreading Love / That asks its image for more than Love," his will becomes hostage to "hot rampageous horses. "

But the speaker knows, "Love / Gives no excuse to evil done for love." And he insists that this principle operates on all levels of existence. Thus he offers a prayer for his fellow human being: Dear fellow-creature, "praise our God of Love / That we are so admonished, that no day / Of conscious trial be a wasted day." This speaker is grateful for living holy scripture that offers guidance for abiding in this hostile world.

Final Cinquain: The Necessity of Duality

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
Loose ends and jumble of our common world,
And stuff and nonsense of our own free will;
Or else our changing flesh may never know
There must be sorrow if there can be love.

The final cinquain avers that duality is real, that, "There must be sorrow if there can be love." But this knowledge should not be used to make "a scarecrow of the day." If we fail to employ the power of the will to love divinely, we make "stuff and nonsense of our own free will."

An Essayesque Song with Memorable Lines

The poem is interestingly titled, "Canzone," which means "song" in Italian. The sentiment of the piece is, indeed, the stuff of song, yet its execution more resembles a philosophical treatise or essay.

Yet with this work as well as with many other poems, Auden's facility with fashioning a poem from non-poetic material creates many memorable lines that will remain with many readers for a lifetime.

Documentary: W. H. Auden - Tell Me The Truth About Love

Introduction and Text of "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson"

W. H. Auden’s two part song focuses on the loss of a loved one, but with a twist—both pieces are tongue-in-cheek parody of the melodramatic, mawkish mourning put on display by certain mourners, who likely are attempting to gain attention rather than express genuine grief at the loss.

W. H. Auden’s "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson" appears in various editions of Auden’s publications. In W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, the poem was included in a series titled "Twelve Songs" as separate pieces numbered IX and X. The first song appears often under the title, "Funeral Blues" and also as "Stop All the Clocks."

Apparently, Auden wrote the lyric to be set to music by Benjamin Britten for the cabaret singer Hedli Anderson, who was the second wife of poet, Louis MacNeice. The first song was recited in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Two Songs for Hedli Anderson

I
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Reading of Song I

II
O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; 'O Johnny, let's play':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Charity Matinee Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
'Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let's dance till it's day':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver and golden silk gown;
'O John I'm in heaven,' I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

Commentary on Song I

Song I features a series of hyperbolic licks that mock the exaggerated, melodramatic mourning of some individuals after the loss of a love one.

First Stanza: Stop It—Now—Everything!

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The first stanza finds the speaker, who is a mourner, beginning an extended exaggeration of her grievance as she commands all the clocks to stop, and all telephones to be "cut off." The speaker also desires that dogs be kept from barking by giving them "a juicy bone."

The speaker then demands that piano players be required to stop playing their cheerful tunes and that they have in place of those tunes a funeral dirge with a "muffled drum." Then in the final line of the first stanza, the reader is alerted to the reason that the speaker wishes everything to cease. Life for the speaker feels as though it has stopped because her belovèd is now dead: "Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come."

The jaunty feel of the piece seems to run counter to the message. Two riming couplets give each stanza a cheerfulness that contrasts with such terms as "coffin" and "mourners." The speaker’s attitude toward her subject seems somewhat stern and deliberately mocking. Commanding that clocks be stopped is certainly a cheeky command, as if to say, I am the only person in the world who matters now, so world just stop your existence.

Second Stanza: Demand for World to Adopt Mourning Pace

Let aeroplanes* circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

The speaker then expresses her wish that airplanes fly, flinging the message across the sky: "He is Dead." This mourner desires "crepe bows" tied around the "white necks of the public doves." And she wishes to place black gloves on the policemen to be replace the white ones. The speaker is concocting a ludicrous visage of the world as she seems to have lost her balance. She desires that the world reflect her own feeling; thus, she demands that everything and everyone adopt her mourner's reality.

Third Stanza: He Was My Everything

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The third stanza finds the speaker announcing how important the dead man was to her: the deceased was the mourner's every direction, he was her every day of the week, and also he was her every time of day. This suffering speaker is insisting that this dead man was, "my talk, my song." He was the speaker's necessary speech and also her entertainment. The speaker then flatly announces in deadpan fashion: "I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."

The speaker has invested a great deal of emotional life in this other person; therefore, she has now found herself totally lost and rudderless. She appears to be utterly devastated emotionally. But instead of merely expressing a state of sadness, this speaker employs the poetic device of hyperbole to both exaggerate and heighten the pain she is suffering.

Fourth Stanza: Appreciating Deep Distress

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The most sorrowful, exaggerated expression is dramatized in the final stanza: the speaker is now demanding an end to everything in existence. This pathetically mourning speaker wants the stars to stop shining; she demands that the moon and the sun cease shining. She commands the ocean to be "pour[ed] away," and she desires that the "wood" to be swept off the face of the earth.

The world no longer exists for this apoplectically miserable speaker, and her deep sorrow motivates her to sense that, "nothing now can ever come to any good." While the poem is easily accessible, it displays a very clever construction. Although the speaker is calling for a situation that is impossible to achieve, her intensity of feeling makes her listeners/readers comprehend and even able to appreciate her deep distress.

The poems achieves an odd sense of fullness and even satisfaction despite the pain and suffering it evokes and also despite the impossibility of the commands. The world does not end for everyone, just because one individual has lost a loved one and descends into deep distress.

The emphatic exaggeration and comedic effect garnered from those hyperbolic licks reveal the poem/song to be tongue-in-cheek parody. Instead of genuine suffering, the speaker is actually mocking the kind of mawkish mourning some people express at the loss of a loved one. Such maudlin mourning reveals that such mourners are really more interested in gaining attention than securing solace.

Commentary on Song II

With a similar theme as in Song I, Song II has its speaker expressing five different scenarios in which the speaker and her lover have engaged; yet from each scenario, the speaker’s lover "frowned like thunder and he went away."

The line becomes a refrain, echoing the loss experienced in Song I, except for the fact that Song II simply claims the lover "went away," which may refer to death or simply that he left her for parts unknown

First Stanza: The Valley in Summer

O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; 'O Johnny, let's play':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

In the first stanza, featuring the first scene with the speaker and her lover, "John," the two can be seen walking by the river, with flowers blooming all around, while the birds are chirping merrily above their heads.

The happy-hearted speaker suggests to her lover that they "play," which may or may not refer to sexual coupling. Lover John, however, offers his first response by "frown[ing] like thunder and [going] away."

The poem remains deliberately vague with remarks such as "let’s play" and that the lover "went away." Likely, the poet is cleverly allowing his readers to interpret the vagueness as they wish.

Second Stanza: Christmas at the Charity Ball

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Charity Matinee Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
'Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let's dance till it's day':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

The speaker then reports what happened at Christmas time at a charity ball. Again, she offers interesting details—the smoothness of the floor, the loudness of the band, her "Johnny so handsome" that she "felt so proud."

The speaker begs "dear Johnny" to squeeze her "tighter" and then let them dance until the next day. And again for the second time, her Johnny just "frown[s] like thunder" and "[goes] away."

Third Stanza: At the Grand Opera

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver and golden silk gown;
'O John I'm in heaven,' I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

The third scene finds the two love birds at the "Grand Opera." Each opera star is magnificent as she exudes marvelous music, as she sparkles in the "[d]iamonds and pearls" and the "silver and golden silk gown."

Again, the speaker is overcome with happiness and joy, whispering to her lover that she is in heaven. And again, John responds with his "frown" and by leaving the hapless creature.

Fourth Stanza: Waltzing with a Perfect Specimen

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

In the fourth scene, the speaker describes her lover with details revealing that he appears as pristine as a "garden in flower." He is tall like the Eiffel Tower and of slender build—a beautiful, handsome sight to the speaker as they waltzed. She adores his eyes lighting up a smile, and she pops the question, stating that she would "love and obey." However, Johnny right on cue simply frowns "like thunder" and goes away.

Fifth Stanza: A Dream and a Frown of Thunder

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

In the final scene, the speaker is reporting a dream, in which she sees her lover with the sun one arm and the other arm with the moon. She states the usual colors of the ocean and the grass as blue and green, but then flips back up to the heavens, describing the stars as beating on tambourines.

The speaker then says she was lying in a pit that was "ten thousand miles deep"—and again the only reaction her hyperbole elicits from Johnny is his frowning "like thunder" as he again "went away."

Sources

Benjamin Britten: Cabaret Songs for Ms. Hedli Anderson

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles