A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none
First, this is a Petrarchan Sonnet: two quatrains with end rhymes on alternating lines; pentameter lines; ended with a sestet ABCCBA. The first eight lines reference the great one. The last six reference the one at home.
1 A shilling life will give you all the facts:
2 How Father beat him, how he ran away,
3 What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
4 Made him the greatest figure of his day;
The first stanza introduces us to an unnamed “hero”. First, he is sufficiently well-known to be the subject of a biography. Line 4 tells us he was a great man “the greatest figure of his day”.
Line two is interesting in its cadence, because it breaks down into two five syllable section each which begin with “how”. In context, these are given almost as clichés.
It is not until the second stanza that we learned what made him great:
5 Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
6 Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
7 Some of the last researchers even write
8 Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
The fifth line gives us a series of action verbs: fight, fish, hunt, work. He did not merely work, he “worked all night” (at what or when we are not told; but we are to be impressed). He was an explorer of land and sea (even naming a sea).
This was a tremendous man of action.
Lines 7 and 8 foreshadow the last section of the poem and act as a transition. First, “last researchers” will be paralleled by “astonished critics”. And we also must wonder at the object of this love which made him weep.
That it was “last researchers” is even more interesting, because these were people who peered beneath the surface of this great man. Why was he such a great man? This introduces the sestet.
9 With all his honours on, he sighed for one [A]
10 Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;[B]
11 Did little jobs about the house with skill [C]
12 And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still [C]
13 Or potter round the garden; answered some [B]
14 Of his long marvellous letters but kept none [A]
An observation on the rhyme: “Some” and “none” actually rhyme more closely than “some” and “home” — although there is a sight “rhyme”. Whether Auden pronounced “some” to rhyme with “home” I do not know.
With all his honours: This man was lauded by everyone, but he sought the honor of someone else, who we will learn, did not even keep his letters.
Why wasn’t the love of the whole world enough for him? Where was this one at home? Was it his mother or his father? (He did run away from home). Was it a woman whose love he could not gain?
The critics are astonished: why? Did think that such great acts necessarily were motivated by some cause which would inspire everyone?
With this Auden is getting at something profound about human beings. Even the most famous person, the most powerful, the wealthiest, the most well-loved, the most talented, or whatnot, is still in the end a human being whose world really involves very few. He ran away from home because of his father. There was someone at home whose love he struggled to gain and who would not even keep the “marvelous letters” from the “greatest figure of his day”.
And so in the end it is love and acceptance – not of everyone, because those others don’t really know us (only the “latest researchers” even uncovered the facts; and when they did, they became “astonished critics”).
That you love, that you know me, that you remember matters than all else.
In a culture so wildly driven with celebrity and so willing to make idols and to slander and destroy such celebrities, it might be useful to contemplate this poem. There is a sympathy here which is lacking in so much public discourse.
Note: In an earlier version of these notes I blundered by referring to this as Shakespearean rather than a Petrarchan sonnet. Someone kindly noted this error, which has been corrected. As I said on the “About” page, these are primarily notes for myself in the form of a commonplace book — and as such, I rarely proofread anything. Please forgive me if anyone was led astray.