Your Crooked Neighbor

It’s time for my Midweek Recommendation, in which I commend to your attention books or music or movies or anything I find worth recommending.

So, as I wrote about ‘the Surprising Word’ in my Sunday Reflection, I realized that I needed to use my Midweek Recommendation on “As I walked out one evening,” a poem by W.H. Auden. Why? Because the line I used in that post, Into many a green valley, drifts the appalling snow comes from that poem, but also because it is my favorite poem of all time.

When I was on a summer study trip in ’92 that took me to Great Britain for a couple months, I had a class on Modern British lit. In that class, I fell in love with the poetry of W.B. Yeats and W.H. Auden. Overall, I am a bigger fan of Yeats, but if it comes down to just one poem, I will choose “As I walked out one evening” by Auden.

(No, this isn’t CSM from the X-Files, this is W.H. Auden!)

Anyway, the poem begins with the narrator going out for a walk:

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

While out for that walk, he spies a pair of lovers by the river, and from the end of stanza two through stanza five, the poem is full of the ridiculous, overblown rhetoric of young love. It’s both beautiful in a way and a brilliant parody of the things people say when on fire with passion and deprived of any semblance of reason.

Then, in stanza six, the clocks of the city begin to reply with the ominous lines, O let not Time deceive you, you cannot conquer Time. And from there through stanza 12, the poem throws some cold water on the dreams of youth and young love (hence the line I mentioned in my previous post).

If the poem ended there, it would simply be depressing. Young love squashed. Realism crushing dreams. But fortunately, the final three stanzas elevate the poem above the squabble between dreams and reality to a whole different level. I quote them here in their entirety…

“O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.”

“O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.”

It was late, late in the evening
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

The first of these stanzas, the 13th overall, has my favorite line in it – Life remains a blessing, Although you cannot bless. That’s as beautiful a summary of the difficulty and joy of life as I’ve ever encountered. The answer to the dilemma, is life hard or is it good, is yes. Yes, life is hard and good. It is tragic and beautiful. It is a blessing, even when we cannot bless.

And in the second of these stanzas I find Auden reaching beyond this powerful conclusion that life is a blessing to give us all some sage advice. So, your neighbor is a crook, is he? A jerk, a punk, a sinner? Well, how about loving that crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart?

Sounds like the gospel to me.