Poem: [Who stands, the crux left of the watershed]
Poet: W.H. Auden
There is much to admire about this poem. I want to hone in on one particular feature of it that I find especially effective, an series of ambiguities that Auden deftly exploits. Let us start at the broadest scale, with the overall motion of the poem. The poem has two stanzas. The first begins impersonally—
Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing floors,
—while the second opens with a direct address—
Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed…
Immediately we must ask who the stranger is. Three options present themselves: the stranger is the reader, the stranger is the poet himself, and the stranger is some unnamed, private reference, not meant for us to know. The poem, as I read it, sustains each interpretation, indeed the poem, as it seems to me, rather asks to be read in each of these ways. I want to explore especially the possibilities of the first two readings: stranger as poet and stranger as reader.
The poem opens with an image of the decay of an industry (lead mining): “An industry already comatose, / Yet sparsely living.” But, just as the poem as a whole transitions from impersonal to personal, so the decay transitions from inhuman to human:
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters…
This brings us to the death of a worker in a storm. What is curious here is the choice. Though many are dead, only some are chosen—only the one death makes its way into the poem. This creates a second ambiguity in the poem: who makes the selection? Is it the poet who selects this particular death for description, or is it the one who, standing by the watershed, recollects the death?
It is easy to see that this ambiguity intertwines with the first ambiguity. Perhaps the poet himself is the stranger standing by the watershed. The image that results from this reading is of the poet addressing himself. So now we have the poet observing the lead mines (call this the first order poet) and the poet observing (and describing) himself observing (call this the second order poet). Either may make the selection. Perhaps the first order poet is recalling one who died here whom he knew. Or perhaps the second order poet is bringing up one of the many who died, doesn’t matter which, to justify the warning command with which the second stanza begins. Once again, the poem sustains either reading.
In one regard the stranger-as-poet reading is the most natural. But because of the use of a direct second-personal address, the reader is invited on reading to take up the position of the stranger, to observe through the poet’s description. (Doubly so since the poet’s readers are primarily strangers in a literal sense.) Then it is the reader who is warned away, perhaps because it is too private, cannot be shared. (This is the fundamental tension and paradox of poetry, which tries to communicate what cannot be communicated: oneself.)
However it is read, the selection of the one dead man from among many must be understood in the light of lines that occur later in the poem. I juxtapose lines from both the first and second stanzas to make the basis for comparison clearer:
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen,
Taken from recent winters; […]
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
That these lines should be considered together is signaled by the inverted repetition of “here and there.” The description of the stranger as “aimless for faces” suggests an arbitrariness in the selection, that any face would do. If we understand the stranger as the poet, then this is a bit of self-reproach. Perhaps the story of his death in the storm is itself a poetic fiction, something the poet imagined, stimulated by the decay he was viewing. Such a death, he imagines, would be appropriate, regardless of its reality or lack thereof. On the other hand, if we understand the stranger as the reader, then this heightens the sense of private significance to which we readers are not privy.
As I said above, I think the poem invites each of these readings. The ambiguity, the shuffling between these different significances, is part of the delight of reading it. This is the first Auden poem I have read (I will be reading all of Vintage’s edition of his Selected Poems, and will post about some of them), and it is a fine introduction.