In Praise of Limestone: by Auden || Summary and Analysis

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Introduction:

      In Praise of Limestone who published in Horizon, July 1948, and later included in Nones. It is one of the best known and most popular poems of Auden, characteristic of his style and technique. Like Paysage Moralise, In Praise of Limestone is a poem about the allegorized landscape. This poem has the influence of Rilke, insofar as it concretizes the abstract. One of the devices that this poem follows is the "expression of human life in terms of landscape". Onto the landscape the poet projects an arrangement of human faculties, and different human philosophies.

      The elements of nature such as mountains, plains, valleys and sea, seemed to make visible to his imagination the shapes of struggles within the human will. They are symbols of human dilemmas.

      G.S. Fraser (in his essay, "The Career of W.H. Auden) has called it one of the most beautiful of all his recent poem and Barbara Everett similarly extols it. As she says in her Book, Auden the triumph of Auden's later style, "lies in the leisurely apparently casual, but in fact deliberate, winding movement towards a quiet climax that is half-denied by, but half resists, the profusion of circumstantial detail that preceeds it." Because of the very nature of the style and the leisurely devices, it is almost impossible to do justice to this poem without quoting it in full. In an almost languid, conversational manner Auden describes the Geology of an area for which 'we the inconstant ones' are homesick:

Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and beneath
A secret system of caves and conducts: hear these springs
That spurt out everywhere with a Chukle
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard

 

In Praise of Limestone who published in Horizon, July 1948, and later included in Nones. It is one of the best known and most popular poems of Auden, characteristic of his style and technique.
In Praise of Limestone

Summary

Stanza-1
      In the first stanza it is said that the human beings who do not have any identity and individuality of their own, and who change their minds as often as authorities demand, are "inconstant" ones. They are consistently homesick for the country of limestone, because limestone is as inconstant as these people. Limestone easily dissolves in water, and from wherever the limestone water passes, it makes its way like the people who change the way as and when their convenience demands."

      Limestone-men have a world of their own in this green landscape of "rounded slopes" "of fragrance of thyme" (a kind of aromatic plant) and of caves and water springs. The sprouting of springs in this limestone country is like nature's chuckle. Everybody has a kingdom of his own here, with "a private pool for its fish", and "a little ravine whose cliffs entertain the butterfly and the lizard". They have a well defined area "of short distance and definite places". The world of the limestone men is as private and homely as the world of a child under the care of his mother. It is a world where the "flirtatious male" ana his beloved are engaged in selfish love without bothering for social responsibilities. They do not doubt each other. The flirtations male is cock-sure of his beloved and is absorbed into himself.

      As every child wants to receive more attention than his brothers and sisters, from his mother, so is the case with the limestone men; everybody is busy in looking after himself. The lime-stone-world appears to be separate from the rest of the world.

Stanza-2
     The poet in the second stanza depicts the dilemma of twentieth-century man. "The band of rivals" (the inconstant ones) roam about in two's and three's in the country of limestone. At times they are seen moving arm in arm, but without mutual confidence and understanding. They are unable to imagine a god whose temper-tantrums can be easily pacified. They cannot imagine a rock-like god who is pleased with wit or music. In other words, they think that everybody in the world can be bought and won. They are accustomed to worship stone (god made of stone) that responds. (The reference here is to Greek statue-worship and belief in Oracels). It is said that they feel quite comfortable in their limestone-country. They are "adjusted to the local needs of valley," where every-thing can be felt with hands or reached by walking. They do not ask vexing question. They know the world they live in can be touched and felt. Materialism is the basis of life of these inconstant ones. What is above is the idea of the universe which is beyond their understanding.

      They are born lucky. Jungle does not create any problem for them. We have nothing in common with any of their problems. They are smug people different from the nomads when any one goes to the wall, we know how his mind reacts. If some one becomes a pimp, or deals in false jewellery, or ruins a fine opera voice, we know this world has no spiritual mystery for them; they believe in its reality. Such things can happen to all except to the so-called best and the worst.

Stanza-3
      In the third stanza the poet says that the best and the worst desired those places where the beauty of nature was meant for then and where the life had some spiritual and philosophical meaning. The thought the people of the limestone country as a 'mad camp'.

      The granite rock says that every thing in the world is transitory; nothing is permanent; only death is permanent. There would be saints heard the granite rock and left to organize their religion on the basis of this philosophy. They (saints) took the hint, prepared a speech, and preached to the masses. Then comes the turn of clays and gravels. They say that armies can be raised on the plains, that rivers can be tamed by constructing bridges over them, that people can win fame and immortality and fame by making their slaves construct a magnificent tomb (such as Taj Mahal) and that both earth and mankind are soft and need to be changed. Men like Caesars took a hint from these words, and left the place to exploit the world. Then comes the Oceanic whisper, which is the ancient voice of supposed cynical wisdom. The Oceanic whisper says that it represents isolation. The sea offers freedom to the realy reckless, which can be achieved through annihilation. The sea offers no love. It offers only envies and sadness. Ocean stands for loneliness and separation, where there is only sadness and no love.

      Auden says all those voices (of the granite rock, clays and gravel, and sea) were right. There is no peace in this world. The poet in this stanza puts a question to his reader: "Has civilization become a ruin of all old ideals? If we look at the past history, we shall see that the distance of time from the past to the present has not taught us anything. But the present civilization has the duty to ask the secular and religious authorities as to where their actions and philosophies are going to lead us? We have the right to live in this world comfortably and peacefully, but our kings and priests have forfeited that right of ours.

      Auden says that he himself is criticised for being inconstant whenever he tries to be realistic he is contradicted and criticised. If the poet takes a realistic mythological stand, the landscape (world) contradicts him. These worshippers of marble statues doubt whatever he says. And these gamins (urchin's, neglected boys of the world) also criticise his "concern for Nature's remotest aspects". He is persued in his laboratories, and contradicted. The poet does not want to lose time. He wants to move on with his mission. He does not want to be caught and left behind in the race. He is unwilling to resemble other poets who have no identity of their own. Music is the greatest comfort for the poet. Music can be made anywhere and it has no physical body. The simple meaning of all this is that the poet should not hesitate to bring out the ugly realities of life and place them before his readers. There is no denying the fact that death is something permanent in the world. But the poet doubts the facts that sins can be forgiven, or dead bodies will rise on the day of judgement. If he takes these facts to be concrete, then landscape will look like athletes and speakers. "The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, / Having nothing to hide", The poet has come to believe that this world can be made comfortable, not by escaping its realities but by accepting them. The poet indicates no personal affinity with saints and Ceasars. It is only in terms of limestone landscape that the poet can imagine "a faultless love / or the life to come.

Critical Appreciation

      Auden's poem In Praise of Limestone considers four ways of responding to life. Limestone men live solely for pleasure. Their tribe spreads all the way from unsophisticated primitive man, living unspoiled in the natural state. They are unable to imagine anything beyond their control, and as such they can experience neither religious despair and joy nor ethical good or evil. They are aesthetic men, intellectuals, incapable of becoming either saints or Caesars. They thrive on power. They act to transform the earth, to control it or make it yield. So they seek out mallbable builder's soil, gravel and clay. A really reckless fourth groups prefers the ocean, in whose vast liquidity human aspirations sink without a trace. The sea offers freedom by annihilation and guarantees that no human triumph shal mar its indifference to men's efforts. This fourth group, which prefers the freedom of life-denial, are not liked by Auden, and that is why he never mentions them again, even to disprove. The eastern philosophy of yoga, that you can confront life only if you ignore it, is completely alien to Auden's life-embracing temperament.

      The poem makes it clear that under the eyes of eternity all four of these responses are wrong and their devotees equally sinful. The poet says, admitting a special affection for limestone men, that whatever their considerable short comings, limestone men are at least ethically harmless, unlike their cousins the Caesars. In his fond moments the poet imagines the limestone world to be a model of paradise, happily certain that the wish of the limestone men to be innocent can never be granted.

      Limestone inconstancy is, in a sense, limestone innocence. Therefore the poet establish with elegiac sweetness the proposition that human virtue depends on a simple assertion of the values of life.

      The poem is a contrast between those who recognise the demanding reality of sin and death, and those who feel that virtues and human happiness are within man's reach. The inconstant ones are homesick for the limestone landscape, because it suggests exactly what 'we' can no longer believe in the immediacy of Nature and the self sufficiency of the people who can control their environment and relate their appetites to their ultimate well-being.

      The limestone landscape, varied, responsive but unpredictable, represents human nature as seen by the child innocently dominated by Eros; more important, it symbolises the weakness and individuality or common human nature. This weakness and individuality challenge the secular saviors, protect man from the extremists; they are ultimate basis of humility and faith. It is only in terms of this landscape, the poet says that he can imagine, "a faultless love / or the life to come".

      The poem makes it clear that under the eyes of eternity all four of these responses are wrong and their devotes equally sinful, but the poem goes to evaluate them from the point of view of an ordinary mortal. From this positing, Auden admits to a special affection for limestone men. In his fond moments, the poet imagines the limestone world to be a model of paradise, happily certain that the wish of the limestone men to be innocent can never be granted.

      The tone of regret, gentle humour, affection, and personal resolve mingle brilliantly... As Auden ties his threads of argument together the temptation to spiritual explorations involve both the best and worst, and between these extremes of which the poet is consciously and ambiguously aware still remains the "worldly duty" of the common life. Even in a context of sin and death and their hoped for conquest this worldly duty remains as a simple talisman of the innocence however self-regarding which attracted Auden in the first place.

      "To quote Roplogle, 'In praise of Limestone' is one of Auden's comic masterpieces. It is a complex collection of incongruities..."

      The gentle form, style and subject turn mock beneath the course subjects and Rabelesian style ("a clever line / or a good day"). As the poem unfolds, the texture of incongruities becomes particularly complex and skilful. "Whatever their original soberness, jumbled together in "In praise of Limestone" all the unlike usages become mildly absurd, and they are the very verbal stuff of the entire poem. There is a constant, persistent, inventerate leap from level in nearly every line. The result is a ceaseless expectation upset - the verbal liveliness that gives the charge to this poetry.

Conclusion:

      Auden's poem In Praise of Limestone is distinguished by a variety of moods which Auden ingeniously strikes and projects. It is difficult to agree with the critics who seek to make the poem out to be an example purely and strictly of Auden's comic verse and find it an ingenious jumble of incongruities supported by a choice of serious words which conceal the comic element. The poem has undoubtedly a tone of gentle humour but it is subservient to the other moods which mark the poem.

      Auden chooses an idyllic setting for his poem. The limestone dotted pastoral surroundings become a hallowed land resounding with mysterious voices.

The poet invites us to, Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear these springs
That sprt out every where with a chuckle..

      The scene sketched before as is simple but it takes on an air of mystery and secrecy. There is a secret system of caves and conduits where the springs chuckle as though to tease man into knowing their secret.

      Auden's concept of the limestone landscape is his concept of art. The limestone figures have the fixity and volatility of work of art. The limestone landscape with its figures is an artistic creation conceived in close proximity to Nature. It is art standing in intimate relationship with Nature.

      Into this artistic and natural landscape, Auden has introduced certain metaphysical considerations. He talks of a religion free from the fear of vengeance, freedom from guilt and shame and an understanding and possibility of human failure. Auden upholds an honest assertion and expression of the natural instincts and desires of man.

      The clays and gravels cry out to man to deploy armies to drill, to tame the rivers and to construct gigantic monuments. It points to man's wish to impose man-made art on the art of Natures.

The cold voice of the ocean draws the seckless, saying
I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad;

      Hope trembles on despair. The poet projects himself into the poem to make a direct assertion:

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home it looks..

      The picture of the modern world that we get is of a dilapidated province, connected

To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal. . .

      And when the poet visualises 'a faultless love' or the life to come he can hear, only "the murmer / of underground streams. The poem is a very good specimen of Auden's casual style and the technique of working variations of moods and feelings around his theme. The argument of the poem rises like a crescendo, gradually reaching its well prepared for climax we find in the poem a mood of tranquility and mystery effected by an imaginative reflection of art, an argumentativeness and the dramatic tone sustained throughout and a metaphysical speculation on the nature of love and the ultimate state of live.

      The whole landscape is symbolic and fragile, symbolising the fragility of art and the stuff of which life itself is made.

      The images are ideally blended with the theme and the mood of the poem. The style is casual and relaxed. The poem has a lyrical and romantic quality which makes it commendable to the reader with immediacy. The poem is really Auden's magnificent contribution to the corpus of modern poetry.

     The limestone landscape, varied, responsive but unpredictable represents human nature as seen by the child innocently dominated by Eros; more important, it symbolises the weakness and individuality of common human nature. This weakness and individuality challenge the secular saviours, protect man from the extremists; they are ultimate basis of humility and faith. It is only in terms of this landscape, the poet says that he can imagine "a faultless love / or the life to come".

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