Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads, by W H Auden




( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, on 21st February 1907 but spent much of his life overseas (he died in Vienna in 1973). In January 1939 he sailed to the United States on a temporary visa but stayed there throughout World War Two, becoming a naturalised American in 1946. It was during this time that he wrote “Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads”.

The poem

Lady, weeping at the crossroads,
Would you meet your love
In the twilight with his greyhounds,
And the hawk on his glove?

Bribe the birds then on the branches,
Bribe them to be dumb,
Stare the hot sun out of heaven
That the night may come.

Starless are the nights of travel,
Bleak the winter wind;
Run with terror all before you
And regret behind.

Run until you hear the ocean's
Everlasting cry;
Deep though it may be and bitter
You must drink it dry,

Wear out patience in the lowest
Dungeons of the sea,
Searching through the stranded shipwrecks
For the golden key,

Push on to the world's end, pay the
Dread guard with a kiss,
Cross the rotten bridge that totters
Over the abyss.

There stands the deserted castle
Ready to explore;
Enter, climb the marble staircase,
Open the locked door.

Cross the silent ballroom,
Doubt and danger past;
Blow the cobwebs from the mirror
See yourself at last.

Put your hand behind the wainscot,
You have done your part;
Find the penknife there and plunge it
Into your false heart.

Discussion

The poem comprises nine four-line stanzas with an ABCB rhyme scheme, which is a ballad verse form. It also reads like a ballad, presenting a narrative unencumbered by elaborate figures of speech. However, it also counts as a “puzzle poem” in that its ultimate meaning is far from clear on a first reading.

The poem is addressed to the “Lady” of the opening line that must also serve as the poem’s title. She is introduced waiting for her “love” in the twilight at the crossroads, and there are suggestions of a medieval context in that he is: “with his greyhounds, / And the hawk on his glove”.

In the second stanza she is urged to do some rather strange things, namely “Bribe the birds then on the branches” and “Stare the hot sun out of Heaven / That the night may come”. It is therefore clear that this is not the world of everyday reality but something much more mysterious.

The mystery continues as she is urged to undertake a journey, or quest, that involves drinking the ocean dry, searching wrecked ships for a golden key, crossing a rotten bridge at the world’s end to a deserted castle, and eventually stabbing herself with a penknife.  Despite the apparent naivety of this tale, something else is going on that, the reader must suspect, has much wider significance.

The language of this poem is that of myth and fairy tale, and it is only on the mythic level that it can be better understood. The reader needs to be aware that Auden uses myth in a particular way, not to explain why certain things are the way they are in the outer world, which is the function of the majority of ancient myths, but to convey knowledge as it is experienced before it is understood. Auden therefore presents symbolic metaphors as a way of giving substance to general truths.

Coupled with this approach is Auden’s belief in the theories of Sigmund Freud, which always persisted despite his waverings in terms of politics, philosophy or religion. It is perhaps significant that his lengthy and admiring “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” also dates from this period of his poetic output. When the elements of myth, dream and Freudian analysis are taken on board, “Lady, Weeping at the Crosswords” begins to make a lot more sense. The quest of the lady becomes a search of her inner self.

The clues that this narrative is not naturalistic begin early, namely in the second stanza as mentioned above. A real sun cannot be stared out, and a real night will come anyway, whatever action an individual might take. Indeed, why would anyone want the night to come, as implied by “That the night may come”? Already it seems apparent that the lady, who is at a crossroads of doubt and is uncertain  which way to turn, is being urged to purge herself by eliminating the “hot sun” of pride and egotism, or possibly of lust for her lover, and to enter a dark night of the soul. The poet is therefore taking the role of a priest or psychoanalyst in urging her to take the first steps to salvation or catharsis, which will be played out in terms of dream and myth.

This interpretation is supported by the third stanza, in which the lady is told to: “Run with terror all before you / And regret behind”. This is not realistic, because the natural urge is to run away from terror rather than towards it. However, in psychoanalytical terms this makes sense, because it is essential for the subject to face their demons and accept truths that have been repressed. Likewise, one would only move forward and regret what had been left behind if that thing had something badly wrong with it.

The fourth and fifth stanzas sound more like fairy tale than psychoanalysis, with their entreaties to drink the ocean dry and search the stranded shipwrecks, but the latter could also refer to past memories of failure that might still hold “the golden key” that will unlock whatever holds the solution.

The atmosphere of the sixth stanza is that of nightmare, with “the rotten bridge that totters / Over the abyss”, which also reminds the reader that psychoanalysis has risks as well as the promise of ultimate reward. The “dread guard”, whom the lady is encouraged to pay with a kiss (shades of “Beauty and the Beast”?), could refer to the “censor” in Freudian nomenclature that can prevent material from surfacing if it has been repressed to too great an extent.

The next two stanzas are also phrased in fairy tale terms, with a deserted castle, a marble staircase and a cobwebbed mirror.  It may be relevant that Walt Disney had released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, and these images, especially that of the magic mirror, may have influenced Auden at this point.

However, the mirror in question is Freudian in that it reveals the true self rather than declaring “who is the fairest of them all”.  The whole image of a deserted building also has Freudian overtones as an image of the self that may be rejected or rediscovered, in which latter case the building is unlocked and reoccupied. The eighth stanza is therefore a triumphant one in which the cobwebs are blown away from the mirror and “doubt and danger [are] past”.

The final stanza continues the theme of a successful quest, with “you have done your part”. However, the notion of suicide in the final couplet (“Find the penknife there and plunge it / Into your false heart”) seems out of place, as why would the lady kill herself at the moment of triumph? The answer can be found in the rhythm of the lines because the emphasis falls on “false”. By killing the false heart the true one can emerge and the initial question (“Would you meet your love … ?”) can be answered affirmatively. There are suggestions here both of fairy tale (e.g. the Sleeping Beauty story) and fertility myths in which a death or cutting down is necessary for rebirth and renewal.

The quest on which the lady is sent has therefore reached a successful conclusion, and the implication is that the poem’s reader can do the same. Whatever one may think about the validity of Freudian analysis it must be remembered that Auden held it in great respect, and it is only by bearing this in mind, as well by appreciating Auden’s approach to myth, that one can really absorb the message behind “Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads”.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford