On a warm June evening in nineteen thirty-three, W.H. Auden
experienced what he later called a “mystical vision”, probably the only such event in his life. Having settled happily into teaching at the Downs School, Malvern, he had acquired a penchant for sleeping outside under the stars
whenever he could. One night after dinner, he was sitting on the lawn with three colleagues. All of a sudden, while talking casually, he felt “…invaded by a power, and, though (he)consented to it, it was irresistible and certainly not (his)….”. Although no alcohol had been drunk
, he felt his colleagues’ existence to be of “infinite value”. He had a vision of agape
, the selfless love of one’s neighbour. This poem is a celebration of agape, and the physical beauty of the boys around him.
In the early thirties, Auden’s work underwent a dramatic shift in style: where he was previously obscure, he was now difficult, but more compelling. Poems of this period are marked by a new lyrical, dream-like quality. A trope from this time was the idea of a cleansing, revolutionary flood-a powerful metaphor for political upheaval. This theme had been developed in two poems previous to this (‘Paysage Moralise’ and ‘O what is that sound’), and formed a private argument with himself, which concluded with a vow to “…rebuild our cities, not dreams of islands…”. The opening stanzas of ‘A Summer Night’ might suggest that he has now abandoned the socio-political concerns that he had recently tried to introduce, and that he was satisfied with his circumstances. This is not the case, however: the poem considers such problems (“…what doubtful act allows/Our freedom in this English house…”) and tries to provide an answer, foretelling that soon revolution will bring dramatic upheaval- but that when this revolution is over, agape will prevail and play a part in the re-establishment of civilization.
The goal of the poem is reconciliation; even in the first line,
opposites are reconciled-Auden lies out on the lawn in bed. It may seem at first to have an improvisatory air, but there is, in fact, a complex structure, directed towards its reconciliatory cadence. With Vega “…conspicuous overhead…”and his feet pointing to the rising moon, one senses that Auden feels more like a citizen of the universe than merely of a school in Malvern. Love is focussed down to “…this point in time and space…” and that point in space is “chosen” and “lucky”, a place of work and sexual desire. In stanza three, he is metaphorically discovered and drawn out by a dove-like light that is tellingly divine. Symbols of worldly woe are rendered tame-“… lion griefs…on our knees their muzzles laid… Death put down his book…”. He learns in stanza five that he is glad to look in eyes that return his glances, and, for the first time in his career, he associates love with conscious choice rather than simple instinct, perhaps because he feels it might last: he knows he will wake to speak with one “…who has not gone away…”.
Like its opening line, the poem moves in and out. In stanza six, the focus rushes out to the six cardinal compass points, guiding the poem into subject matter of a grand scale. The moon’s ascent of the “…European…” sky is the main device illustrating this theme; to her, churches and power stations are indistinguishable. She is symbolic of something above petty earthly concerns, much like Auden and his followers of agape, who enjoy their freedom in blissful ignorance of the political situation in Poland. Disturbing current events such as Moseley’s British Fascist Union rally created a pressure that no private world would be secure against, but Auden has rendered the scene of this poem static and timeless. It is a place set in “…allegorical mode, as a Peaceable Kingdom”; as Samuel Hynes put it, in which one could lie secure on the lawn, free to enjoy “…the tyrannies of love…”. The “…creepered wall…” protects Auden’s private world of amorous love and “…kindness to ten persons…”, which is a world without time, and hence without fear, grief or death. References to a definitely placed world (Oxford/Big Ben/ Wicken Fen) heighten the sense of disparity between this very private realm and the public world.
Auden now proposes that social revolution will come, and that the delights of agape will become part of what will transform the world. He hopes that his garden experience might be parental to the whole change. The flood metaphor is startling –having been long concealed in the dreamy form of a river, it will now reveal its true size and vigour. When the flood subsides, wheat-an image of fruitfulness and the rebirth of civilization- will appear in “…shy green stalks…” through the black mud. The lyrical love Auden has discovered will play a significant part in the re-establishment and “…calm/ The pulse of nervous nations…”.
“ A Summer Night” is a complex fusion of revolutionary musings and genuine, mysterious sensations, weighing present harmony against future change. It is, perhaps, the climax of a series of poems hinting at his fundamental dissatisfaction with society, but above all, it is testament to his own joyous epiphany-his discovery of agape. A desire for the harmony of his present, private world to transform the public world of the future pervades the entire poem. It is a touching and convincing argument.
W.H. Auden, "A Summer Night" (June 1933)
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June,
As congregated leaves complete
Their day's activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.
Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to a newcomer.
Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:
That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.
Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.
She climbs the European sky,
Churches and power stations lie
Alike among earth's fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers
And blankly as a butcher stares
Upon the marvelous pictures.
To gravity attentive, she
Can notice nothing here, though we
Whom hunger does not move,
From gardens where we feel secure
Look up and with a sigh endure
The tyrannies of love:
And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.
Soon, soon, through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.
But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears,
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears,
May these delights we dread to lose,
This privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong,
As through a child's rash happy cries
The drowned parental voices rise
In unlamenting song.
After discharges of alarm
All unpredicted let them calm
The pulse of nervous nations,
Forgive the murderer in the glass,
Tough in their patience to surpass
The tigress her swift motions.