Precious Five: by W. H. Auden - Summary and Analysis

Also Read


      Auden's 'Precious Five' was first published in Harper's Magazine, in October 1950 and later in the Collected Shorter Poems in 1966. It is a considerably late poem in Auden's career, so this poem has the lucidity of his later style. This poem bears central message of Auden's poetry. W. H. Auden, quite aware of different ills to which human life is subject is very much conscious of human sorrow and suffering, of coarseness and vulgarity which disfigure human nature. Inspite of the darker side, Auden accepts life and regards it as a great blessing. The poem is written in a light vein and is characterized at some places by fine touches of irony. The subject of the poem is somewhat unconventional. The poet, in this poem, tells about the role of the five senses individually.

The poem 'The Precious Five' emerges in the last decade is strikingly different from Auden's earlier definitions of poetry. It is an example of Auden's fondness for unusual and outlandish phrases when he writes even on subjects too common for poetry.
The Precious Five


      In the opening stanza, the poet advises the nose to be 'patient' and to accept the present despite its disagreeable smell and not to contrast it with the 'grand scent of the past'. It is further advised not to remember 'the calm enchanted wood' - a symbol in the poem of the lost and past childhood. The attractive past has now been altered and substituted by the less attractive present. Auden describes physical appearance of the nose 'a bridge from mouth to brow,' or as asymmetric curve thrust outward from a face. The nose thus thrust into space is conscious of time, remembering the past in relation to the present. The present must be accepted with all its faults, and one must learn to make the most of the present opportunities. The nose thus thrust into space is conscious of time, remembering the past in relation to the present. Lastly, the nose is advised to point 'up the storm-beaten slope'. We find the subtle irony of Auden in this line: nose which always points down is asked to point up. It should take its course from memory of the past to hope for a better future, although the poet is conscious of the fact that the nose cannot take this 'way'.

      In the next stanza, the ears are advised to 'be modest'. They are poet's ears for poetry. The poet addresses the ears, calls them 'spoiled darlings' of an age in which people like to go to concerts and operas. The ears have been vulgarized by the cheap music of the cabaret and public music-halls. The poet's advice to the ears is that they should undergo rigorous training, acquire discipline, and in the way learn to distinguish between the minutest sounds. It may be a coarse vulgar age, but even in this age, much is possible for those who are willing to take the necessary pains, whether one is in the dream-world, or in the world of actual existence, he is required to love those objects - which have no fixed place of living. In other words our attachment to materialism makes us love those objects in the world, which are transitory. And the main reason of our catastrophe is our love of materialism: "Our claim to own world" There is nothing else in this materialistic world except 'panic' and 'caprice', Our self-centeredness makes us crave for a world that may satisfy our physical selfish desires.

      In the third stanza, it is the hands that are addressed and are advised to be civil. The hands of the heroes of by-gone ages are humorously compared to 'claws and paws' and referred to as 'leg-of-mutton fists'. Homeric deeds of valor are now retarded as obscene. In this changed circumstance, the poet says that the hands, must change their nature. They should now learn to make offers of sympathy and to give even to "hands, you cannot see". They should learn to be friend to help and to sympathize. These are the virtues needed to-day and they must be cultivated. Auden's approach to life is realistic. The people of the present age are suffering from-emotional mental diseases marked by depression and all-grounded fears. In the present materialistic world, self-denial, forgiveness is not possible. But love requires all these. Dictators who bring destruction to the world to achieve power and materialistic gains, ultimately achieve nothing.

      Man is selfish. Instead of loving his fellow beings, he loves himself. This retards his healthy mental growth, and he turns out to be a psychologically ill-person. He does not hesitate to destroy the world. His destructive attitude makes him ferocious. The human hands have become the most uncivilized of the sensory organs. They do not know what has been written on them: how they struck their blows motivated by temper or greed long ago. However, the poet wants the hands to retain the memory of the great exploits of their's of the past. The times of such hands are over and such hands are now dead and useless. In the present unheroic and unchivalrous age "A tight arthritic claw / or aldermanic paw is regarded as impious and obscene".

      In the fourth stanza, it is the eyes that are advised to be honest and straight-forward. They should give up the intrigue and double-crossing which mars even the most intimate relationship in the modern age. Before finding faults with others, they should know their own faults. Spiritual deadness is the general rule in the modern waste land, and most people have dull, vacant eyes, indicative of their inner vacancy. The eyes are therefore advised to be lively and this can result only from spiritual growth and re-generation. This regeneration can come back only through love, through faith, through belief in religion and God. The eyes should cultivate this faith and then alone they would see and realize the truth. In the present culture, a man is crying to get back his stolen luggage but does not succeed in his mission. Addressing his beloved the protagonist of the poem says she should be knowing better about matters of love.

      In the fifth stanza, the poet or the protagonist addresses his beloved as "dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit, O dear love". The poet says that she is present in the depths of his soul, but the selfishness of the lover, which is deeply rooted in his heart, can not tolerate the presence or love. In other words, selfishness and love do not go together. So the poet advises the eyes to "look straight" lest in the process of exchanging glances they should lose their beauty.

      'True seeing' is not merely the matter of 'sight', it also means belief and confidence in others. Let the eyes, therefore, look outward, rather than inward; let them be sincere, innocent and loving. Eyes are the instruments of intelligence where no self-deception is possible.

      In the fifth stanza, it is said that the tongue is the instrument of 'the Earthly Muse'. The tongue is the instrument of taste. It can use two types of language - (i) respectable and rough. Sometimes it praises the 'fish-wife' in rough enough language, and sometimes a 'queen' in respectable language.

      The poet however advises that for the sake of 'Earthly Muse', we should enjoy the present and should not believe in self-denial. Life is to be praised, even though there is much in it that is lustful and sensual. The 'Earthly Muse' must be thanked, life on earth must be accepted and lived, despite its many drawbacks.

      The "I" in this stanza is the poet's mind, his logic. The poet says that so long as he is alive, let the precious five be happy and act as they are told, that is to say they should enjoy the present, and forget the past. They can enjoy the happiness provided by love, or alcohol or gold. The poet says that it is of no use to show despair and anger at what is going on in this world. The poet's philosophy is "life remains a blessing," or "Bless what there is for being". Let us enjoy the present; the past and future are of no importance. Religion is a form of escape, and it can provide no answer to the human predicament. The only message that the universe has or man is that life is blessed and it must be accepted with thanks. Man is made for this.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      The subject of the poem is somewhat unconventional. It exhorts to the five senses individuals about their role. In the final stanza, the poet advises all the senses in general to be happy and enjoy whatever they like. The poet can find enough reasons to rail at the world in despair anger for whatever is happening in the present age, but it is of no use. We should be thankful and happy for what we have our life and all that goes with it. There is no need for man to grumble about what was in the past and what is not in the present. The note of optimism which the poet strikes in the end helps the poem to come full circle; Precious Five is an example of Auden's fondness for unusual and outlandish phrases when he writes even on subjects too common for poetry, The last stanza of the poem draws our attention to the fact that all men are equally sinful, their every steps equally wrong, yet their lives and events and objects in them equally blessed. The nose in the poem is seen as the organ which is aware of time.

      The ears are the poet's 'ear for poetry'. There is a pointed criticism of his public when he says that "It cannot take pure fiction / And it wants from you / Are rumors partly true," and he concludes the stanza by admitting the need for inspiration. His ears must go back to school and drudge, but even then poetic success is a luck which the ears celebrate but cannot predict. Hands are the instruments of action and power, but in a funny contrast between "hairy wrists / And leg of mutton fists" and "A tight arthritic claw/or aldermanic paw" Auden appeals to hands be exploratory and generous, not merely to evoke the authority of the past. Eyes are instruments of intelligence and in living men compliment the heart in a 'mutual undeceiving'. 'True seeing' is not merely a matter of right.

      The final stanza lends a touch of seriousness to the poem. A note of optimism strikes in the end of the poem. There is also much sorrow and suffering which is often underserved and whose author is unknown. But negation or rejection of life can serve no purpose. The only message that the universe has for man is that life is blessed, and it must be accepted with thanks. Man is made for this life, and whether he 'agrees or disagrees' he must accept it and live it out.


      The poem 'The Precious Five' emerges in the last decade is strikingly different from Auden's earlier definitions of poetry. It is an example of Auden's fondness for unusual and outlandish phrases when he writes even on subjects too common for poetry.

      To quote Justin Raplogle, If one were asked to describe the central idea Auden's belief - a single idea that could be extracted from his entire body of work - that idea, beyond any doubt, would be "life remains a blessing," or "Bless what there is for being". Yet during the 1930's, Auden's speakers very seldom said anything like this. More often, they spoke of contemporary life as though it were a illness rather than a blessing, something to be cured, and they frequently limited their remarks to clinical description of the disease or prescriptions for their cure. . .

      Auden's poetry after 1930 can be called almost completely secular. There are hardly one or two poems which have religious or theological subjects. And more important, Auden does not emphasize the unpleasant sinfulness of secular life. Almost all the poets, without ever denying men's ultimate singleness, celebrate life as a blessing. According to Auden, since to be human is to sin, nothing could be more common and less worthy of special attention than sin itself.

Previous Post Next Post