Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

W. H. Auden, fully Wystan Hugh Auden

English-born American Poet, Essayist and Playwright

"A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep."

"A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, loitered about that vacancy: a bird flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone: that girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, were axioms to him, who'd never heard of any world where promises were kept or one could weep because another wept."

"A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us."

"A shilling life will give you all the facts."

"A tremendous number of people in America work very hard at something that bores them. Even a rich man thinks he has to go down to the office every day. Not because he likes it but because he can't think of anything else to do."

"A vice in common can be the ground of a friendship but not a virtue in common. X and Y may be friends because they are both drunkards or womanizers but, if they are both sober and chaste, they are friends for some other reason."

"A writer, or at least a poet, is always being asked by people who should know better: Whom do you write for? The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author."

"About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters; how well, they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; how, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting for the miraculous birth, there always must be children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood: they never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, but for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

"Acts of injustice done between the setting and the rising sun in history lie like bones, each one."

"Adjectives are the potbelly of poetry."

"All pity is self-pity."

"All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman."

"All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation."

"All that we are not stares back at what we are"

"All the rest is silence on the other side of the wall, and the silence ripeness, and the ripeness all."

"All theological language is necessarily analogical, but it was singularly unfortunate that the Church, in speaking of punishment for sin, should have chosen the analogy of criminal law, for the analogy is incompatible with the Christian belief in God as the creator of Man. Criminal laws are laws, imposed on men, who are already in existence, with or without their consent, and, with the possible exception of capital punishment for murder, there is no logical relation between the nature of a crime and the penalty inflicted for committing it. If God created man, then the laws of man's spiritual nature must, like the laws of his physical nature, be laws -- laws, that is to say, which he is free to defy but no more free to break than he can break the law of gravity by jumping out of the window, or the laws of biochemistry by getting drunk -- and the consequences of defying them must be as inevitable and as intrinsically related to their nature as a broken leg or a hangover. To state spiritual laws in the imperative -- Thou shalt love God with all thy being, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself -- is simply a pedagogical technique, as when a mother says to her small son, Stay away from the window! because the child does not yet know what will happen if he falls out of it."

"All we are not stares back at what we are."

"All wishes, whatever their apparent content, have the same and unvarying meaning: "I refuse to be what I am.""

"All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him."

"Alone, alone, about the dreadful wood of conscious evil runs a lost mankind, dreading to find its Father."

"Although you be, as I am, one of those who feel a Christian ought to write in prose, for poetry is magic: born in sin, you may read it to exorcizes the Gentile in you."

"America has always been a country of amateurs where the professional, that is to say, the man who claims authority as a member of an elite which knows the law in some field or other, is an object of distrust and resentment."

"And none will hear the postman’s knock without a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?"

"And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets of the evening paper: Our day is our loss, O show us History the operator, the Organizer, Time the refreshing river. And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life that shapes the individual belly and orders the private nocturnal terror: did you not found the city state of the sponge, raise the vast military empires of the shark and the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton? Intervene."

"Any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting and significant than any romance, however passionate."

"Anyone who has a child today should train him to be either a physicist or a ballet dancer. Then he'll escape."

"Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser and more intelligent than his readers."

"Art is born of humiliation."

"Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead."

"As a poet there is only one political duty, and that is to defend one's language against corruption. When it is corrupted, people lose faith in what they hear and this leads to violence."

"As a rule it was the pleasure haters that became unjust."

"As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don't like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don't like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don't like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don't like it."

"At first critics classified authors as Ancients, that is to say, Greek and Latin authors, and Moderns, that is to say, every post-Classical Author. Then they classified them by eras, the Augustans, the Victorians, etc., and now they classify them by decades, the writers of the '30's, '40's, etc. Very soon, it seems, they will be labeling authors, like automobiles, by the year."

"Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off."

"Avoid the barking dog with his juicy bone,"

"Base words are uttered only by the base and can for such at once be understood; but noble platitudes — ah, there's a case where the most careful scrutiny is needed to tell a voice that's genuinely good from one that's base but merely has succeeded."

"Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever, and do not listen to those critics ever whose crude provincial gullets crave in books plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks."

"Beauty, midnight, vision dies: let the winds of dawn that blow softly round your dreaming head. Such a day of welcome show eye and knocking heart may bless, find our mortal world enough; noons of dryness find you fed by the involuntary powers, nights of insult let you pass watched by every human love."

"Before people complain of the obscurity of modern poetry, they should first examine their consciences and ask themselves with how many people and on how many occasions they have genuinely and profoundly shared some experience with another; they might also ask themselves how much poetry of any period they can honestly say that they understand."

"Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links, behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks, under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh there is always another story, there is more than meets the eye."

"Beloved, we are always in the wrong, handling so clumsily our stupid lives, suffering too little or too long, too careful even in our selfish loves: the decorative manias we obey die in grimaces round us every day, yet through their tohu-bohu comes a voice which utters an absurd command - Rejoice."

"Bring out the coffin, let the mourning cry. Let the planes flying in circles high in the sky the message Scratching : He Is Dead, Put beige neck ties of white pigeons from the ground, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday inert, My noon, my midnight, my song, my speech, I thought love was forever: I was wrong. 's stars are not necessary: ??remove each one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun do; Empty Ocean and sweep up the woods; For nothing now can in some good cause."

"But all the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime: 'O let not Time deceive you, you cannot conquer Time."

"But if a stranger in the train asks me my occupation, I never answer writer for fear that he may go on to ask me what I write, and to answer poetry would embarrass us both, for we both know that nobody can earn a living simply by writing poetry."

"But in my arms till break of day let the living creature lie, mortal, guilty, but to me the entirely beautiful."

"But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided. A continent for better or worse divided. The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot the case as a good lawyer must. Return he would not, afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot. [penned after Lord Mountbatten entrusted Sir Cyril Radcliffe, with drawing up the boundaries between India & Pakistan]"

"But round your image there is no fog, and the Earth can still astonish."

"By mourning tongues the death of the poet was kept from his poems. But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, an afternoon of nurses and rumors; the provinces of his body revolted, the squares of his mind were empty, silence invaded the suburbs. The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers. Now he is scattered over a hundred cities and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections; to find his happiness in another kind of wood and be punished under a foreign code of conscience. The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living. [in memory of W.B. Yeats]"

"Cancer is a curious thing... Nobody knows what the cause is, though some pretend they do; it's like some hidden assassin, waiting to strike at you. Childless women get it, and men when they retire."

"Cats can be very funny, and have the oddest ways of showing they're glad to see you..."