At the source of the longest river / The voice of the hidden waterfall / And the children in the apple-tree / Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / between two waves of the sea.
TS ELIOT Four Quartets: Little Gidding

Hi! My name is Robert, aka The Solitary Walker, former editor of The Passionate Transitory, and this is
The Hidden Waterfall, my new site devoted to poetry discussion. We choose poems, we read them, we think about them, we discuss them. If you want to take part, please use the relevant comment box; all serious contributions are eagerly received. The lit-ernet is full of cursory summaries and shallow shorthand — so let's develop a deeper, more questioning, more intellectually satisfying approach to poetry appreciation. I'm thinking it would be good to feature rather-less-well-known 'difficult' poems, rather than popular 'easy' ones, but any ideas and suggestions about content are welcome. There is no pressure to join in, no time limit for responses. Whether you wish to contribute, or just read along, or aren't interested at all, that's fine. Participation should be for the fun of it, and out of a love of poetry and its greater understanding. I'll probably be posting a fresh poem every couple of weeks or so, but there are no hard and fast rules on this exploratory site. A little background reading about each poet and his/her life and work may be useful.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

2. 'Woods' by WH Auden

Here's another poem by Auden for comment and discussion. 'Woods' is the second poem in a series called 'Bucolics', which was published in 1952-53. The other poems in the sequence are similarly elemental and topographical: 'Winds', 'Mountains', 'Lakes', 'Islands', 'Plains', 'Streams'. Caedmon recorded Auden reading these poems in 1953; you can trace some of these recordings on the internet. In the liner notes Auden describes the common theme of these poems as 'the relation of man as a history-making person to nature'.

Compared with 'Consider This and in Our Time', the first thing you notice about this poem is that it's written in traditional iambic pentameter form — perhaps as a gesture to English culture before its decline or perhaps as mocking irony?

A few words of explanation: in the first stanza Piero di Cosimo's 'primal woods' refers to his painting 'Forest Fire' in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. In the sixth stanza 'Pan's green father' who 'raps out / A burst of indecipherable Morse' refers to a woodpecker.

This poem seems to me to be a concise poetic history (anthropological, social, political, cultural, spiritual and mythological) of the English (British) forest (and, by analogy, English culture): from savage to sylvan to well-kempt — to coarsened, depleted and degraded. Forests used to cover Britain; now there are only patches left. This theme of woodland (and cultural) destruction has, of course, increasing global resonance. I think the general direction of the poem is clear, but, as often with Auden, there are frequent obscurities: who are 'those vast lives that never took another / And are not scared of gods, ghosts, or stepmother'? (Stanza 4.) Why does the philologist feel at home in the forest's shade? (Stanza 5.) What is 'the water noise'? (Stanza 7.)

I love the lines 'The trees encountered on a country stroll / Reveal a lot about a country's soul' (Stanza 8.); and the very last line of the poem, 'A culture is no better than its woods', has the force of an undeniable truth.

What do you think about this poem?


  1. I'm struck by many things in this poem. First, "sylvan meant savage" has to startle any reader awake. How could this be? He turns our dream of the word on its head, then shows us, quite clearly, what he means--and the contrast with the second stanza is all the more stark.

    I am thrown a bit by his introduction of the "hotel" in the third stanza. I believe I know what he's getting at, but it doesn't seem to fit.

    I enjoyed the humor in the sixth stanza, even if I'm not sure about the Welshness of those cuckoos: "A burst of undecipherable Morse/And cuckoos mock in Welsh."

    Interesting, about the last line. I love the phrasing of it, on the one hand, yet on the other, I felt he tied up what the poem was expressing a little too neatly, almost like the moral of the tale.

    1. I thought the surprise introduction of the lovers' tryst 'hotel' — with its seedy implications — was actually rather good, Susan. Auden doesn't then go on to contrast in an obvious way the hotel with the wood as bad/good or new/old as a lesser poet might; he gently mocks the mythic wood too, with its seductive nightingales!

      Yes, I like the humour as well.

      In the sixth verse Auden seems to be conflating and contrasting, again in an amusing way, a coarsened present-day society with some idyllic past society — though the poem ironically doubts whether the latter has ever existed anyway (those cannibals, those unchecked fires). And as for those Welsh cuckoos, I think we can make associations forever here: Welsh = Celtic = ancient woodland; the cuckoos (who lay their eggs in the nests of other birds) mocking a 'perfect', 'normal' family (the doves); etc. etc. (It's hard not to see veiled references to Auden's homosexuality and feeling of 'outsider' status in so many of his poems.)

      I know what you mean about the patness of the last line, though I think Auden probably gets away with it — you could consider it quite suited to the traditional poetic form he employs (which knowingly counterpoints the complex content of the poem, its irony, its transitions from amusing to serious, idiomatic to classical phrasing, and so on.)

      Thanks so much for joining in with this discussion!

  2. I'm so pleased to be introduced to this poem, although, as ever, I'm uncomfortable with the fact that there are so many 'obscurities'. It's nice to know that it's not just me being dense however! I think that can be off-putting with a lot of poetry - the feeling that you might be missing something which is obvious to 'better' readers - cleverer, more erudite, less literal than me perhaps.

    1. I'm glad you were arrested and challenged by this poem, Mark — and I really enjoyed the post it inspired on your own blog.

      I know exactly what you mean about sometimes being intimidated by 'difficult' poetry, but I certainly don't believe those so-called clever and erudite intellectuals necessarily have any privileged access to meaning and appreciation. Many of them bark up the wrong tree (to stay with the woodland theme!). The great thing about poetry is that anyone's opinion can be valid and of interest, if backed up with a little thought and imagination.

      Auden's obscurities can often be provocatively annoying. For instance, the next poem in the 'Bucolics' sequence, 'Mountains', begins: 'I know a retired dentist who only paints mountains...' One may speculate till the cows come home about dentists and famous dentists in history and the symbolism of dentists, but what Auden is referring to here is his boyfriend's father who had been a dentist... What one may think of these wilfully obscure personal references is open to discussion.

  3. What keeps occurring to me, reading these Auden poems, is something I often think of in relation to music. For example, when we hear Haydn we might think of Wagner and feel we want something more turbulent. However, Haydn's contemporaries obviously never heard any Wagner. Listeners then and listeners now listen in historically different contexts. No amount of seeking after authenticity (reproducing historical instruments, strings, etc.) can change this. Only imagination can.

    Back to the poetry. Reading Auden when he talks of the “helmeted airman” it strikes me that an airman then, a practitioner of a cutting-edge technology, would, perhaps, for a poet, be like an astronaut now. And when Auden talks about the history of woodland I can't help but think that this is a man who was writing poetry less than 100 years after the death of Pugin and I'm reminded that the romanticised Victorian view of “old England” though fading as an assumed point of reference, would still play a part in people's world-view – enough for it to enjoy something of a revival around the time of Elizabeth II's coronation, an event which prompted over 500 revivals of German's Merrie England. This is the context in which British readers would originally read the second stanza of “Woods”.

    Later in the same poem, Auden extols the well-managed wood. These days a poet would probably say

    "The trees encountered on a country stroll
    Reveal a lot about a country's soul"

    and respond positively when he or she came across a bit of unmanaged woodland left to fend for itself naturally, the oak with "heart-rot" left to provide a habitat for insects.

    But then, like everything, it's of its time - a time when social (and technical, for that matter) engineering was in the forefront of people's minds: the NHS was in its infancy and architects were attempting to redesign the way people lived.

    All this makes me wonder what we miss (and will never find) in poetry and literature that is even older.

    1. Thanks for such a long and interesting comment, Dominic — I like your long, historical perspective. I also like the way you invite us to consider how 'the helmeted airman' would have struck a reader 100 years ago, and how a phrase like 'heart-rot' may reverberate with different meanings today. Contextuality is really important, I think.