Despite the familiarity of the voice in W.H. Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” (from the helpful instructiveness of “Mark these rounded slopes” to the gentleness of “my dear”)—the poem remains stubbornly enigmatic. As critic John Hildebidle has noted, “When Modernist syntax is most direct, the idea being expressed is often most complex … the tone is one of conviction, but what it is that the voice believes, or wants us to believe, is opaque, and remains so even after years of pondering.”1 Today, almost three-quarters of a century after Auden penned the poem, I find myself dissatisfied with much of the existing analysis around it. Readers appear eager to either overindex Auden’s personal relationships in interpreting the text or to try to draw out a unified theological or philosophical perspective. I see both of these approaches as falling short. Instead, I see the poem as navigating the fraught relationship between an intermittently reticent individual and the public sphere upon which he was so frequently requested to commentate. We know that Auden wrote “In Praise of Limestone” during the peak of the “age of criticism”2 and that he rejected certain earlier poems (“September 1, 1939” and “Spain”) for being “dishonest” and perhaps too similar to “reportage.”3 Given Auden’s statement that “the reason (artistic) I left England was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1, 1939,’” we might surmise that Auden continued to struggle with deploying his poetry as a site of public discourse and criticism. I see “In Praise of Limestone” as speaking to this internal conflict.
Many have suggested that the limestone landscape Auden praises recalls both the Italian topography of Auden’s travels as well as his English homeland. Another image might be inserted into this Pan-European montage: the Greece of Raphael’s painting, “School of Athens.” Like the Plato and Aristotle of Raphael’s imagination, Auden’s speaker points and entreats (again, “Mark these rounded slopes,” followed by “hear the springs” and “examine this region”). Similar to the Athenian school, the space navigated by Auden’s speaker not only straddles built interiors and natural exteriors but is also populated by his peers (the speaker notes “steep stone gennels” climbed by a “band of rivals”). Of course, a major difference would be that Raphael’s setting is chiseled from marble instead of limestone, but limestone becomes marble under pressure—perhaps the pressure of public discourse. Here, we come to a mysterious phrase which may shed light on the speaker’s relation to the public: the “band” is characterized as “sometimes / Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step.” While writer Caleb Crain reads homoerotic tension in these words, 4 I see them as remarking on the discomfort of belonging to a cultural or historical moment suffused with tribalism and fleeting trends, on which one might be expected to opine or to which one might be expected to conform.
Indeed, if limestone (or marble) serves as the backdrop to the realm of the vast majority of public life—and human history, as suggested by the fact that limestone is formed from layers of organisms’ remains1—the speaker’s recognition of its “beauty,” “sweet[ness],” and “Mother[liness]” is clearly not without reservation. The speaker admits:
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…
What does it mean to title a poem “In Praise of X” and then to sever X from the notion of “the best”? In the poem’s first line, Auden’s speaker warns us that he considers himself among “the inconstant ones,” and his ambivalence is what returns in these lines. The speaker suggests that despite the appeal of public life, extraordinary people will seek “less public” spaces, unwilling to engage in the “mad camp” of social, cultural, or political performance. Again, coupling our knowledge of Auden’s motivation for fleeing England with the “homesick(ness)” his speaker professes, I read this section as evidence of his ongoing struggle to decide how frequently and how explicitly he should engage the public through speech and text.
Auden motions toward this struggle further in the lines describing (presumably) England’s “worldly duty which in spite of itself / It does not neglect,” going on to state bluntly, “it disturbs our rights.” If England has a duty to the world, and the speaker has a duty to “Mother” England, it only follows that the speaker has a duty to the world. Unfortunately, that duty disturbs one’s “rights” to individual peace and privacy—rights “the poet” craves. Here, the speaker directly references marble, stating the poet “is made uneasy / By these marble statues” and “these gamins / Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade” (think again of “School of Athens”). The People, demanding contributions of the Public Figure to art, philosophy, and science, “rebuke his concern for Nature’s / Remotest aspects.” Though the remoteness of nature is precisely where the solitary poet wishes to linger, he is not allowed that indulgence: the speaker claims “I, too, am reproached, for what / And how much you know.” The writer must edify the reader. The public figure must appease the public.
Auden closes the poem by imagining an unlikely reconciliation:
…Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
Reconciliation with the limestone landscape, representing the speaker’s literal home as well as the figurative home of all public life, occurs only in the context of “a faultless love” (impossible, as the public’s love necessarily occasions hassles or faults) or the indeterminate and unknowable “life to come.” Nonetheless, the speaker’s imagination functions as a sort of melancholic repentance in this life, in which it is possible after all for “sins [to] be forgiven”—at least by generous readers.
- Hildebidle, John. “The Mineralogy of ‘In Praise of Limestone.’” The Kenyon Review, vol. 8, no. 2, Kenyon College, 1986, pp. 65–75.
- Quinn, Justin. “Auden’s Cold War Fame.” Auden at Work, edited by Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin, Palgrave Macmillan, London, United Kingdom, 2015, pp. 231–249.
- Burt, Stephen. “‘September 1, 1939’ Revisited: Or, Poetry, Politics, and the Idea of the Public.” American Literary History, vol. 15, no. 3, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 533–59.
- Fassler, Joe. “What Memorization Taught Caleb Crain about His Favorite W.H. Auden Poem.” The Atlantic, 13 Aug. 2013.