W.H. Auden, "Domesday Song"

Reality itself can't explain reality.

W.H. Auden, "Domesday Song"


Hi everyone–

Classes started and I'm teaching. I don't have many students but I'm working on a pretty intense approach to assignments and readings. It's definitely consuming my time.

(I mean, tbh, the other thing consuming my time is America's newfound obsession with consuming horse paste, but I'll let you read about that on your own.)

Below, a commentary on Auden's "Domesday Song," a lyric about the end of an age/the end of all things. I am very grateful to Parker Molloy for openly asking whether it is rational to think about the end of everything. I've tried to expand on her concerns through Auden's poem. I think I've concluded that it is rational to think about the end of the world, but we might actually have to be reading poetry to pull it off well. It may be the case that we need to be more conscious about what we imagine and why.

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W.H. Auden, "Domesday Song"

Thinkers who proclaim "this is the fatal mistake which will destroy our world" are legion. Right now, I'm immersed in Nietzsche and Heidegger, and neither are shy about blaming Plato for destroying philosophy and art for generations. I feel their critique is a tiny bit exaggerated, lending itself to fanatics who care little for ideas or expression, but are instead obsessed with power and greatness. However, Nietzsche and Heidegger are only some of the more sophisticated of those addicted to pointing out the world's fatal, final sin.

A few years back I got tired of doom-and-gloom analyses and predictions. Just done with "if X isn't done, the economy will falter," or "if Y isn't taught, it will fade from memory forever." And so I made a mistake. I started thinking too much like a bad English professor. A poem like Auden's "Jumbled in one common box," I reasoned, might be usefully paired with Yeats' "The Second Coming," as they're both about societal collapse. I wrote. The result was somewhat less than awe-inspiring. True, I had identified two poems with similar themes and compared them. Big whoop. Did I approach why anything like them was written at all? Of course not—I assumed that answer. Both poems, obviously, spoke to the self-importance of the poets. Only they lived in terrible, exceptional times when everything could change in an instant. The rest of us dare not comment.

Now I live in terrible, exceptional times, where the future looks full of death, ignorance, and contempt for human life. I believe it can be safer, in the correct circumstances, to treat the world as "teetering ever closer to the brink," as Parker Molloy writes. She wonders if apocalyptic fears are ever rational: we can't solve the smaller problems, so how could we possibly solve the big ones? I saw in this a parallel question: Shouldn't we learn how to deal with smaller issues first, before pronouncing on grand challenges? Con artists love talk about the end of the world. They thrive on emotions which spiral out of control, allowing nearly anything they say to appear timely, authentic, or wise. Initially, it does not seem like we should indulge any such thought, as it gives the worst power over us.

The problem is that the world will certainly collapse if we refuse to be aware. Those prone to hysteria are right about one thing: reality as we know it is delicate. But then they respond hysterically to that truth. Those of us who want to respond appropriately must learn the details of that delicacy. Our delicacy. It almost feels necessary to render them poetically, because the crucial element is the emotional learning, or what we're willing to imagine. Reality itself can't explain reality.

Domesday Song
W.H. Auden

Jumbled in one common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at a sky,
Crimson in the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

Auden begins with the emotional rhetoric of one grown cynical. We don't stand in our place in the world, we're "Jumbled in one common box." "We" is the wrong word, even. "We" can imply humanity and agency. Trapped in the box, in "dark stupidity," are "Orchid, swan, and Caesar." This echoes Aristotle's conception of the soul—the nutritive, sensitive, and rational—except Auden emphasizes what we associate with lust, e.g. "Orchid" and "swan." "Caesar," a general who almost never lost a battle, is understood to have an insatiable lust for power. However, calling him "stupid" requires arguments of a higher order. He is stupid, precisely because he is smart enough to manipulate anyone he wants. His contempt for seeing others as equals proves a successful but horrible strategy in the short run, ineffectual and doomed in the long run. "Time...tires of everyone," and Caesar stays at the same level as a bird and a plant.

Photo by Maira Salazar / Unsplash

Is it productive to think of mankind as merely lustful and murderous? Somewhat—Auden's created a stand-alone first stanza. Not only time throws away the key, walks away from the cell. He has to consider a more specific cause of collapse, one not reducible to sophisticated name-calling. Sure, a prophet can be trapped by "dark stupidity," but the intersection of religion, fraud, and the falcon failing to hear the falconer offers a lot to ponder:

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry...

I can't read this without thinking of all the evangelical pastors who lined up to serve Trump. How they recognized his game, his grift, and were in awe of it. A billionaire with a vast array of connections styling himself an authentic voice of the people, winning control of the most powerful seat on Earth as a result. I've watched Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, do his "turn your heart to Jesus" 30 second speech. It looked too practiced to me. There's nothing in it quite as "real" as hugging a flag on stage or saying your opponent gets whatever he deserves with the threat of violence hanging in the air.

Trump is not a man of the people; crudity is not reality. The prophets making a profit on each cry know that and marvel. They are good at what they do: the money pours in. But none of them have achieved such a spectactular dominance, despite a culture where victims of grift can be so impressed by the skill involved they'll continue supporting it out of pride, not shame.

The preachers' own mistakes and Trump's success are two separate discussions, I believe. Trump's success has a lot to do with the lines "a jackass language shocks / Poets who can only pun." Poets who can only pun can fare well. Develop a schtick and you get a reputation. And that reputation can feed you. What happens, though, when that's all the audience wants? When they are militant that punning or rhyming poetry is all there is? Bad poets then serve a weaponized language; the audience has discovered its power. It asserts its terrible taste in order to bully non-conformists. To tear down intelligent, practical people. In like manner, the lowering of standards in political and religious life—feeding citizens gossip rather than policy, selling miracles instead of teaching the fundamentals of the faith—paved the way for someone with no standards at all.


The dark, stupid eros of Caesar and his imitators points to another drama. What about our desires, our loves? They can be used to manipulate us, but they stand somewhat apart from fear. Love creates despite fear:

Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at a sky,
Crimson in the setting sun...

Auden pictures terror accompanied by a strange beauty. Mothers hold and feed their children. This ordinarily speaks hope, joy, newness. Fear of what is to come resides in the "Crimson" a "setting sun" causes. Nothing is necessarily ugly in these images. It's the hint of horror, the sky looking a bit too red, foreshadowing violence and confusion.

Fox of Light

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Photo by Luis Enrique Ibarra / Unsplash

Still. "Nursing mothers." Not unambiguously positive, as babies grow up, then exercise dominion and force. "In the valley of the fox / Gleams the barrel of a gun." But if to love is to create, to fear for someone or something else, then a greater issue comes into focus. I'm thinking of how limited our conception of love can be. For even the best of us, it's mainly about our usefulness to a few around us, whom we love in various degrees. I don't think agape, completely charitable love, consistently manages to go much further. However, reaching out to a stranger, appreciating someone's efforts, taking the time to learn how someone thinks or lives, taking the time to do or make more—this is all love, love which makes the world, but does not reduce to a simpler notion like utility or charity or wonder. It doesn't privilege families or clergy or couples. It's about the messiness of seeing the world.

Auden turns to a partner and sighs. "Once we could have made the docks / Now it is too late to fly." There was a chance for something different, something better. It doesn't matter anymore. They have love, and I read "Once too often you and I / Did what we should not have done" as defiant. It does not accept all love and lust as identical with Caesar's "dark stupidity," though wanting someone's attention and devotion continually? Yeah, that can be a bit selfish. It's not necessarily world-ending. Love is messy, love is accepting. Still, one has to steel oneself for what is to come. So many who have become desperate, who have lost their way by force or fraud. "Rude and ragged rascals" are no different from us, but that doesn't make a bad situation any less dangerous unless it is understood. Being sensitive to love means sensing the world of neglect beyond. If it's overwhelming for us to merely see, how much more is it for others to bear?

I don't want to say love solves all the world's problems. That's not even true to the poem. The impression from it I get is that there are themes and concerns we've rejected as being based in folk ideas or myth. Our answer to the profitable prophet was to ignore him, to pretend his was a harmless little game with no import for a secular, rational society. Then we pretended that the demonization of minorities was just name-calling, that society would come to its senses despite those reaping rich rewards from the plunder of those weaker. "Love" is somewhat the wrong word for what Auden is getting at. It describes why he's making the address, what he thinks is at stake. But what's operative is closer to love as a way of knowing, that one can't really know what's going on until one actually cares for someone else and their situation.

There's a deep ignorance we're apt to excuse nowadays. We'll say someone's nice but clueless and not hold them accountable for not knowing. We're not recognizing just how much selfishness "nice" conceals, how dangerous "cluenessness" can be, and how immoral it is on our part to excuse ignorance. Every time we say "it's ok you didn't know, you didn't really have to know," what are we saying to those who do make the effort to know? What are we saying to those who want to love with their mind and heart?