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Sunday, 25 March 2012

William Empson: Aubade

Mitate rajōmon

Mitate rajōmon / Correspondence of Rajōmon: a man departing, holding a closed umbrella over his right shoulder, looking back at a young woman standing on a veranda, leaning against a post: Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770) (Irving H. Olds Collection, Japanese Prints and Drawings, Library of Congress)

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die for a god for a throw,
Who says after two aliens had one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

File:Mukden 1931 japan shenyang.jpg

Japanese troops entering Mukden (Shenyang) during the Mukden Incident, aka the Manchurian Incident, a staged event devised by Japanese military as pretext for invading northern China: photographer unknown, September 1931; image by Shizhao, 3 April 2006

File:Kamaishi Bay after 1933 tsunami.jpg

Kamaishi Bay, Iwate, Japan, after 1933 Sanriku earthquake and tsunami: photographer unknown, 1933; image by MChew, 28 October 2008 (Iwate Prefectural Government)


Tsuchiyama: travelers travelers crossing a bridge spanning a raging river, during a rain storm near the Tsuchiyama station on the Tōkaidō Road: Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858), from the series: Tōkaidō gojūsantsugi no uchi: 53 stations of the Tōkaidō Road, between 1833 and 1836 (Irving H. Olds Collection, Japanese Prints and Drawings, Library of Congress)

Evening rain at Azuma Shrine
: Andō Hiroshige
(1797-1858), from the series Eight views in the environs of Edo, between 1827-1840 (Japanese Prints and Drawings, Library of Congress)

William Empson (1906-1984): Aubade, 1933, written in Tokyo, where the poet was at the time professor of English at the National University; first published in an early version (with eight additional lines, personalizing the relationship -- "I do not know what forces made it die" -- and the leavetaking situation, and with "we" in the final line given as "you") in Life and Letters 17, Winter 1937; first published in this version in The Gathering Storm, 1940.


Empson's note on line 31:

'The same war' in Tokyo then was the Manchurian incident.


When I was in Japan, from 1931 to 1934, it was usual for the old hand in the English colony to warn the young man: don’t you go and marry a Japanese because we’re going to be at war with Japan within ten years; you'll have awful trouble if you marry a Japanese; and this is what the poem is about.

Empson on Aubade, from William Empson in Conversation with Christopher Ricks, in The Review, June 1963


Tom Raworth said...

Always good to see some Empson, someone with a brain: his voice is stuck in my mind from that old Caedmon LP way back in the last century...."the waste remains/ the waste remains and kills". Take it easy, Tom. Val and I are just waiting for Anselm and Jane to drop in. love from us, Tom

TC said...


Marvelous to hear your voice amid the sodden dripping cabin fever drainspouts of the night. And much love to you and Val and Anselm and Jane. It is a grand world which contains such souls and hearts and brains in it.

Tom Raworth / William Empson: Let It Go

Jack Delano / William Empson: Desolation (Missing Dates)



Lovely to find this here in the green world after day and night of rain -- just getting back from another trip up to the white world of the mountains -- prints and poem and photos and note from Tom and the link to other Empson poems and T's morning photo.

Johnny and I have just been reading (for the 5th time?) The Blue Lotus, Hergé's adventures of Tintin based on this same Manchurian Incident. Here's the "Historical Note" on p. 2:

"Hergé first published Le Lotus Bleu in the magazine Le Petite Vingtieme in Brussels in 1934-35; the story itself is set in 1931. At that time Japanese troops were occupying parts of the Chinese mainland, and Shanghai, the great seaport at the mouth of the Yangtze Kiang, possessed an International Settlement, a trading base in China for Western nations, administered by the British and Americans. Hergé based his narrative freely upon the events of the time, including the blowing-up of the South Manchurian railway, which led to further incursions by Japan into China and ultimately to Japan's resignation form the League o Nations in 1933."

Meanwhile and otherwise, keep warm and dry!


light coming into clouds above shadowed
ridge, whiteness of flower beside fence
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

effect which has to do with,
where the same system

equal to note on space-time
continuum, that, then

grey rain cloud against shadowed ridge,
silver of drops splashing into channel

Anonymous said...

Tom I love these prints They look so "easy" but of course are anything but

Mr. Empson anything but too

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William A. Sigler said...

A Sunday afternoon reading Marcel Raymond and Walter Benjamin was bound to end horribly unresolved, until I came upon this "dawn" of another new "door" to open from you. At last a human being writing about literature! Empson to my knowledge appears to be the first...

British aristocrat...

bisexual adventurer...

imperial buddhist...

university casualty...

rationalist anti-Christian...

eccentric beard-growing...

underratted poem-writing...

Milton scholar!

ACravan said...

Linking this and Let It Go clarified several things for me, which really needed unclouding. For the half-hour so so prior to reading them, I was lost and trapped in a sea of horrible, self-righteous, propagandistic prose that was essentially ordering me to do things I had no interest in doing (sign up for this; show up in this place by this time) and, then, when I reached the final magic, click-on-this-and-you'll-be-finished door, I was told I was too late to participate in the event anyway. That came as a relief, but not half as much as finding myself in poetry again where I was meeting the experience voluntarily and as an equal. Curtis

TC said...

We who are about to again be poked by long spokes of rain are grateful to everyone for penetrating our ancient brain with insights.