In Praise of Limestone
Summary: Auden’s poem is a reflection on a landscape characterized as a sort of earthly paradise. In it, he positions the beauty of nature in alignment with—and sometimes, in opposition to—the self. That is, the environment both reflects and is reflected in the humanity which resides in it. With a tender, informal delivery, the poem explores central ideas of mutability and constancy, allegory and reality. Notable passages include the first stanza’s introduction of the “Mother” and son; the section on “Caesars”; and the concluding lines of the poem.
W.H. Auden, one of the most famed poets of the 20th c, wrote “In Praise of Limestone” in 1948, shortly after returning from, or during, a trip to Italy. There is conversation amongst critics as to whether the poem is inspired by the Mediterranean landscape, or by the landscape of Auden’s native N. England. Each location possesses features of the “one landscape” formed by “it” (limestone) (1). The possible merging of the two locations is of possible significance, as the landscape is positioned as a sort of home for those “inconstant ones” who have no choice but to be “constantly homesick” for it — whether Auden was writing about England, or Italy, or both, the significance of the landscape as a place at the center of the self is clear.
As said above, this text is about the dynamics that exist within “the one landscape” formed by limestone, as well as those between its residents and those who move outside of it. Descriptions of the perfect land that “is not the sweet home that it looks, / Nor its peace the historical calm of a site / Where something was settle once and for all” complicate the representation of this place, as well as the representation of the self. Written in the period after World War II, the poem exhibits a noticeable attention to disruptions of peace, environments, and character. For example, though the “inconstancy” of the limestone-laden-landscape is something to be homesick for—its “rounded slopes” and “region of short distances and definite places” celebrated—disruptions imposed on the landscape are less accepted. The second stanza of the poem makes this much clear: the “band of rivals,” a group of teens in the city, live without knowledge of the challenges that others face. “Born lucky,” their city—in contrast to the wilderness of the limestone landscape or “the fungi / And insects of the jungle”—supports an ease of life that makes possible, from those “immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external” the rise of “Intendant Caesars.” In this, Auden’s historical context becomes more relevant. Anxieties about the function of space, politics, and power are evident, as are residual tensions about tyrants who “rose and Left,” whose “slamming the door” contrasts markedly with the peacefulness of the poem’s first stanza.
Noted as “the first postmodern pastoral,” the poem shows human life parallel to landscape. Distinct because of its contemporary speech and intimate, informal tone, the poem lacks a normal rhyme scheme and is riddled with enjambed lines. which contribute to the informal, almost conversational nature of the poem. Each of the three stanzas centers on a slightly different main theme: (1) The description of the landscape itself and the introduction of the figure of the “Mother” and the son. The son, “a flirtatious male” is loved by “Mother” despite his faults. We are left at the end of the stanza questioning whether the love between “Mother” (nature?) and man is true, as well on the nature of a child’s wish to “receive more attention than his brother’s” (possibly a note of nationalistic difference—that is, those who do not share this “one landscape” to whom the poem will soon turn). (2) The life of the young men in the city whose ways have completely drowned out the naked reality of wilderness as shown in stanza one. The men are to be future “Caesars” who care only for creating civilization out of the rich land. But, some remain swayed “By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper.” This voice is the vastness of the human condition, mirrored in the environment itself. As the limestone is dissolved by water, formed and reformed over generations and, largely, underfoot, this ocean whisper prompts the “really reckless” among city-dwellers to discover the promise of nothing. (3) This stanza recognizes that the voices which ended stanza two were right: people must acknowledge that the wild landscape is not “the sweet home it looks” but that rather it “disturbs our rights” — that is, the environment itself causes a disruption to the comforts of life that humans built civilization to enshrine. The poet is revered for an “earnest” skill of calling “the sun the sun” but still, cannot make sense “his mind Puzzle.” Further, he is “uneasy” with constructions like “marble statues” which are yielded of the landscape, yet exist counter to its natural ruggedness. These controls of nature by man are an example thus of humanity’s efforts to ignore the “older colder voices” which, we know, turn out to be right. The final lines, framed with the conditional “if”—just as the poem begins—make further the point that, in life and death both, “these modifications of matter” have significance. Still, for the poet, when imagining either end, “what [he] hear[s] is the murmur / Of underground streams, what [he] see[s] is a limestone landscape.”
The conversation on beauty, appearances, artificiality, and the reflection of an environment on and in the self, marks this poem as a hugely versatile text. I can imagine that this text would work well next to other texts on the method of making art (like Alcock’s), or just as easily working with Wharton’s novel, which explores the dynamics between internal and external appearances. Some questions that may arise could connect to questions about the role of the artist. In the third stanza, Auden refers to the figure of “the poet”— what is he saying about this figure? What may other writers be saying, implicitly or explicitly, about he or she that makes art in their texts? And what of their muses?
W.H. Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” is an ode dedicated to an actual limestone landscape outside Florence, Italy where Auden was currently living at the time. The landscape is not a painting, but is an actual work of art by nature. Therefore, the poem is a form of ekphrasis, because Auden is verbally representing his perceptions of the visual landscape. Auden is praising the limestone as the true human landscape. It is represented as a life-giving element, and one that people are always longing for.
Literature by nature is a representation of something else. For Auden, in his poem, limestone is represented as the most basic and pure form of human existence. Limestone is a form of sedimentary rock, made up of animal fossils and shells. In its most basic form, it is composed of life. It is a moldable type of rock, and can be used to create quite easily. The people who live in such a landscape have everything they need handed to them. The limestone is there for them to manipulate in any way, and construct and build different things: produce works of art.
However, according to Auden, people want to keep progressing. They do not want to stay in this easy landscape, but rather take on other forms in order to grow. This is seen in the following lines from Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone”:
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. “Come!” cried the granite wastes,
“How evasive is your humor, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.” (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) “Come!” purred the clays and gravels
“On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.” (2012, pp. 43-54)
Prosopopoeia is being used to give life to the different rock formations. The granites, clays, and gravels are calling the people to their landscapes where people can drill and construct different materials. These are landscapes where progression can occur. Staying on the limestone landscape will not move people forward, so they seek other landscapes. This draws on the industrialization going on during the time period. Progress and new forms of technology were being produced. People did not want to get left behind in the simplistic limestone life. They sought other “immoderate soils” where new inventions and creations could be constructed.
Yet, Auden in the very first lines of the poem states:
If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. (2012, pp. 1-3)
Although people may be progressive and may want to keep moving forward, they end up longing for the limestone landscape. It is a comfort giving landform and one the dissolves in water. The importance of water here is the fact that life begins in water. Life itself is represented in limestone. Auden connects the longing for limestone as the longing for a return to a simplistic life. When progression has spent its toll on a person, they wish to return to that pure and simple landscape.
This could be set up to question the value of progress. The most basic and simple forms of life are the ones that we long for the most, so what does progress do for us? This can be related to what language does for us. It gives us the opportunity to create something beautiful out of simplicity. Our minds can create metaphors from basic things and we use writing as form of creation. This correlates to Bourdieu, as Auden says simplicity is beauty. Beauty is all around us. Therefore, refined tastes are put into place by what we read and know, but Auden says beauty is everywhere. This also related to Hopkins’s “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” because he concurs that everything in nature is beautiful. You don’t have to have cultured taste to see that nature is beautiful.
Historical Context/Genre: Written in 1948 by English-American poet W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone” is an allegorical poem meant to highlight the beauty of nature. Auden wrote this text in Italy in May, which explains the imagery present in the poem (“stone gennels” (22), “Caesars rose” (55), “marble statues” (73), etc.), all of which correspond to Italy in May. Auden wrote this poem a few years after World War II ended, a time in which the natural beauty of the world was potentially harmed by human involvement. Reading “Limestone” a second time reveals the possible socio-political motives Auden had for writing his poem, thus making it an allegory. In the second stanza, Auden seems to criticize “the band of rivals” (21) who nonchalantly walk around town and take city life for granted while disregarding the beauty nature has to offer. Only the “best and worst” (45) of us can appreciate “immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external” (46).
Theoretical: A theoretical text one could possibly apply to “In Praise of Limestone” would be Caroline Levine’s article, “The Affordances of Form.” Auden mentions the “predicted” behaviors tangible things like “water” and “stone” have in the real world. The physical forms of water and stone afford them the ability to be predictable. According to Levine, forms function in five possible ways: “1-forms constrain, 2- forms differ, 3-various forms overlap and intersect, 4-forms travel, and 5-forms do political work in particular historical contexts” (4-5). The various forms of nature is presented to us, both in reality and in Auden’s poem, correspond with the first four functions of forms.
I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. (77-84)
W.H. Auden’s In Praise of Limestone was written in Post-WWII Italy in 1948, in three long stanzas with loose, syllabic lines. The tone of the poem is conversational, and it feels as though the poem exists in a conversation that took place in Auden’s head, as he separated himself as both the speaker and the reader of his own ode to limestone. Limestone is characteristic of the Mediterranean landscape that Auden had become accustomed to during the many summers he spent in Europe.
Summary: The limestone being described by Auden has long been considered to stand as an allegory for the human body and the soul. The poem in itself is a form of ekphrasis, a descriptive representation of a Mediterranean landscape made entirely of limestone, a rock formation made up of dead sea organisms. Auden’s poem allows the true nature of the landscape by allowing it to “speak” for itself. Ultimately, Auden’s poem presents its reader with the idea that while death is permanent, beautiful things (like limestone) can be formed from the death of something. Limestone provides us with an easy landscape to mold or transform into anything we can imagine, and the landscape that Auden describes seems to be reminding human beings of the place where they became where they are, but a place that they are now too preoccupied to pay attention to because of an incessant focus on what is to come. Additionally, the limestone that Auden describes can be thought of as symbolic of the way that both human beings and the Earth need to be harder, for we are all subject to decay.
The first stanza recognizes human beings as “inconstant ones”, but reminds the reader that limestone is constant, as it always is able to dissolve in water. Lines 11-14, “What could be more like Mother or a fitter background/ For her son, for the nude young male who lounges/ Against a rock displaying his dildo, never doubting/ That for all his faults he is loved” bring forth the image of a the young male physique- which was honored through ancient Greek and Roman artwork through sculptures made of limestone. Additionally, one may think of these lines solely as “Mother” nature- who does not ask much of human beings other than to preserve her beauty by being kind to it, and by sitting back and enjoying life as it is.
Lines 57-62, “I am the solitude that promises nothing;/ That is how I shall set you free./ There is no love;/ There are only the various envies, all of them sad” reminds the reader that the ocean asks for nothing, but sets you free in return- also highlighting the similarities between human beings and the limestone landscape, which is also set free in water- free to become whatever it is destined to.
Lines 60-64,“They were right, my dear, all those voices were right/ And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,/ Nor its peace the historical calm of a site/ Where something was settled once and for all” highlight the history behind the landscape. This image reminds the reader that history has not been peaceful because there has always been violence and destruction, but regardless of what has occurred in this place, beauty has still come. Again returning to the idea that beautiful things can come of death and destruction, Auden reminds us that the landscape is not just beautiful in its antiquity, but in the ways that people and a society are able to survive it.
Lines 77-80, “Not to lose time, not to get caught,/ Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble/ The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water/ Or stone whose conduct can be predicted” show the ways that human beings cannot be bothered with the predictability of limestone and are instead always searching for something that they must question- not something that they already know the secrets of. He may also be considering the way that we, as a species, have moved away from the appreciation of simple artforms as our societies have progressed.
Lines 81-90, “…our Common Prayer whose greatest comfort is music/ Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,/ And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward/ To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if/ Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,/ These modifications of matter into innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,/ Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:/ The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,/ Having nothing to hide” reminds readers that music cannot physically decay and remind us of our own mortality in the way that limestone does. And even though limestone is the “bodies” rising from the dead, it has helped man to create beautiful works of art that we are able to admire from all angles, one that, unlike music, does not hide from us, but is happy to stand forth as the most perfect and pure form of life.
By continually returning to the idea of what it means to be beautiful throughout the poem, I believe that this would work well alongside The House of Mirth or Mrs. Dalloway, both of which explore significant themes of the importance of appearances to society. It is even possible for us to consider the idea of progression through this poem alongside the The Sellout, and consider how (as discussed in class) far we have or have not come as a society. In other words, what should we be returning to? What should we stay away from? In terms of theory, I think it is entirely possible to use this alongside Casanova’s “Literature as World,” to discuss the ways in which art from all of the world, and all time periods, has been so important to helping us shape ourselves and our cultures- exactly in the same way that literature is.
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