September 23, 2011
by Aaron Belz
I’ve always loved British poet W. H. Auden’s poem “Embassy,” in which two gardeners observe “highly trained” government men converse about politics—and “price their shoes.” Auden juxtaposes this “picture of the private life” with another scene, in which armies “with all the instruments for causing pain” await instructions. The twofold picture resolves in “A land laid waste, with all its young men slain, / Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.” No subtle irony here: comfortable politicians call deadly shots without an existential connection to the bloody reality they are creating for others.
“Embassy” was written in the 1930s around the same time Auden wrote a poem I’d forgotten about, “Refugee Blues.” It had slipped my mind that Auden, of whom I usually think as a more traditional, formal poet, wrote several poems in blues stanza during that period. “Refugee Blues” begins,
Say this city has ten
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.
This stanza reminds me of a couplet in Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”: “You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome. / You might own guns and you might even own tanks…” Again, the poet contrasts rich and poor, powerful and weak, in a way intended to compel the reader/listener toward a vision for justice. But Dylan’s blues song “Masters of War” provides a better comparison to Auden’s “Refugee Blues.” Here is a stanza from “Masters of War”:
Come you masters of war, you that build all the
You that build the death planes, you that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks
I just want you to know I can see through your masks
Here are two more from “Refugee Blues”:
The consul banged the
table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee;
they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?
The formal base is identical (though Dylan adds a line) which means both songs can be sung to the “Masters of War” tune (I’ve tried it). The argument is also the same: politicians who are detached, who “hide behind desks” and sit comfortably around conference tables, are disconnected from the plight of the homeless, war-torn, oppressed. The central difference is that Auden writes in the voice of the German-Jewish refugee, while Dylan sings from the less sympathetic perspective of the activist. So Auden’s case is implicit while Dylan’s is explicit, but it is the same case.
Another difference is the time in which the poems were written—Auden’s in 1939 and Dylan’s in 1963. This affects the poets’ aesthetic approaches. Auden is firmly modern and therefore artful and staid; Dylan is postmodern, the consummate hippy-era protest poet, so he is angrier, more direct. For conservatives, Auden might be considered canonical while Dylan still represents social and political upheaval. But again, the same argument is being made, and the poets are part of the same literary tradition.
Wherever one falls along the political or religious spectrum, the mandate to heed the plight of the war-oppressed is at least as old as the prophet Isaiah, who writes “Hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugees.” Indictment of comfortable politicians is as old as this passage from Amos:
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation…
You lie on beds adorned with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
and fattened calves.
God takes such a contrast of fortunes seriously. In fact, he takes it as seriously as he takes the sin of Sodom, one which Christians have historically misunderstood to be primarily sexual. Ezekiel writes, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Amos concludes with a warning that “He will smash the great house into pieces / and the small house into bits.”
Dylan comes to a similar conclusion: “I hope that you die/ And your death’ll come soon/ I will follow your casket/ In the pale afternoon…”
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent
collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry