A New Year Greeting

At a time when poets and poetic enthusiasts are more easily look outward, bursting with resolutions, memories and convictions, W H Auden (1907 – 1973) has us look inward, to the miraculous biology within our very bodies, a liveliness which continues unabated and under-appreciated, until life flows from it. Of Auden’s sumptuous expression, itself informed and inspired by an article from Scientific American. Andrew Seal writes:

“(B)rooding on the “vast spiritual disorders” of the age. “New Year Letter” is . . . (an) amalgamation of the ominous and the epic, the topical and the universal, the almost maudlin and the hard-boiled, the lapidary and the singsong is identical: the length only amplifies his characteristic talents and faults . . . It appears—complete—in his Collected Poems, and we should be grateful: it is a rich, relentlessly searching poem, and well worth reading at the New Year—perhaps annually!

I am curious how we can read this poem amidst the tensions and discoveries of our own time. (Comments most welcome.) As the Celtic mystics remind us, miracle is all around us and within us. Right?


New Year Letter – A poem, by W H Auden (1939)
    On this day tradition allots
        to taking stock of our lives,
    my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
        Bacteria, Viruses,
    Aerobics and Anaerobics:
        A Very Happy New Year
    to all for whom my ectoderm
        is as Middle-Earth to me.

    For creatures your size I offer
        a free choice of habitat,
    so settle yourselves in the zone
        that suits you best, in the pools
    of my pores or the tropical
        forests of arm-pit and crotch,
    in the deserts of my fore-arms,
        or the cool woods of my scalp.

    Build colonies: I will supply
        adequate warmth and moisture,
    the sebum and lipids you need,
        on condition you never
    do me annoy with your presence,
        but behave as good guests should,
    not rioting into acne
        or athlete's-foot or a boil.

    Does my inner weather affect
        the surfaces where you live?
    Do unpredictable changes
        record my rocketing plunge
    from fairs when the mind is in tift
        and relevant thoughts occur
    to fouls when nothing will happen
        and no one calls and it rains.

    I should like to think that I make
        a not impossible world,
    but an Eden it cannot be:
        my games, my purposive acts,
    may turn to catastrophes there.
        If you were religious folk,
    how would your dramas justify
        unmerited suffering?

    By what myths would your priests account
        for the hurricanes that come
    twice every twenty-four hours,
        each time I dress or undress,
    when, clinging to keratin rafts,
        whole cities are swept away
    to perish in space, or the Flood
        that scalds to death when I bathe?

    Then, sooner or later, will dawn
        a Day of Apocalypse,
    when my mantle suddenly turns
        too cold, too rancid, for you,
    appetising to predators
        of a fiercer sort, and I
    am stripped of excuse and nimbus,
        a Past, subject to Judgement.

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