“In Sickness and In Health”

I’ve read this poem aloud maybe seven times now. Maybe I’ve read it to you. Whether or no, it’s the most arresting poem I have come across in quite some time. Truly, after Eliot, Auden is the greatest of the moderns. I find his facility with imagery to be simply astounding. This is the strength of those rare yet masterful exemplars of the modern form in poetry: they issue forth a veritable wave of images which one must simply let break upon the inner eye for the first, and quite possibly even the second or third, reading. The meaningfulness (if not the plain meaning) of the poem is apparent — if not altogether obvious in all of its detail — from the outset, while successive re-readings serve to fill in some of the gaps and are at once mystifying, delightful, and instructive.

Read this poem. Out loud. To yourself, first, and then to others. Read it several times, to several different people. Mull over it. Read it. Say it.

Are you up to the challenge? Good. Let’s make this poem “go viral.” But no one’s counting hits. Just spread it. Good art is meant to be spread, isn’t it?

Perhaps I have commentary to add about the material of the poem itself. Perhaps. But I’d like to offer it dialogically, rather than spouting it here — that is, if anyone would like to talk about it. If not, no worries. Is there something that strikes you about this poem, something that entrances, or disturbs you? Something that you take issue with? Please, say so.

Matthew, of this poem you said, “There’s a whole sermon there!” I think you may be right. Would you care to elucidate?

I originally gravitated towards this poem in my volume of Auden because I was about to go to a wedding in a few hours. I saw the title and pretty much thought, “Oh, how apropos! I’ll read this; it’ll get me thinking about marriage, and what’s about to come to pass, etc.” Well, it didn’t not get me thinking about all of that, but it certainly did much more. Nonetheless, I stand by my original impulse: let’s indulge at least one naif, particularly literal reading of this poem — as a “wedding poem,” as it were. This need not be the only reading we give to it, but definitely let it be close to if not the foremost reading we give to it.


NB: All emphases original.


for Jeremy and Rocio Jordan

In Sickness and in Health

by W.H. Auden

Dear, all benevolence of fingering lips
That does not ask forgiveness is a noise
At drunken feasts where Sorrow strips
To serve some glittering generalities:
Now, more than ever, we distinctly hear
The dreadful shuffle of a murderous year
And all our senses roaring as the
Black Dog leaps upon the individual back.

Whose sable genius understands too well
What code of famine can administrate
Those inarticulate wastes where dwell
Our howling appetites: dear heart, do not
Think lightly to contrive his overthrow;
O promise nothing, nothing, till you know
The kingdom offered by the love-lorn eyes
A land of condors, sick cattle, and dead flies.

And how contagious is its desolation,
What figures of destruction unawares
Jump out on Love’s imagination
And chase away the castles and the bears;
How warped the mirrors where our worlds are made;
What armies burn up honour, and degrade
Our will-to-order into thermal waste;
How much lies smashed that cannot be replaced.

O let none say I Love until aware
What huge resources it will take to nurse
One ruining speck, one tiny hair
That casts a shadow through the universe:
We are the deaf immured within a loud
And foreign language of revolt, a crowd
Of poaching hands and mouths who out of fear
Have learned a safer life than we can bear.

Nature by nature in unnature ends:
Echoing each other like two waterfalls,
Tristan, Isolde, the great friends,
Make passion out of passion’s obstacles;
Deliciously postponing their delight,
Prolong frustration till it lasts all night,
Then perish lest Brangaene’s worldly cry
Should sober their cerebral ecstasy.

But, dying, conjure up their opposite,
Don Juan, so terrified of death he hears
Each moment recommending it,
And knows no argument to counter theirs;
Trapped in their vile affections, he must find
Angels to keep him chaste; a helpless, blind,
Unhappy spook, he haunts the urinals,
Existing solely by their miracles.

That syllogistic nightmare must reject
The disobedient phallus for the sword;
The lovers of themselves collect,
And Eros is politically adored:
New Machiavellis flying through the air
Express a metaphysical despair,
Murder their last voluptuous sensation,
All passion in one passionate negation.

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves:
The decorative manias we obey
Die in grimaces round us every day,
Yet through their tohu-bohu comes a voice
Which utters an absurd command – Rejoice.

Rejoice. What talent for the makeshift thought
A living corpus out of odds and ends?
What pedagogic patience taught
Preoccupied and savage elements
To dance into a segregated charm?
Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,
And gardened from the wilderness of space
The sensual properties of one dear face?

Rejoice, dear love, in Love’s peremptory word;
All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
Exist by grace of the Absurd,
And without conscious artifice we die:
O, lest we manufacture in our flesh
The lie of our divinity afresh,
Describe round our chaotic malice now,
The arbitrary circle of a vow.

That reason may not force us to commit
That sin of the high-minded, sublimation,
Which damns the soul by praising it,
Force our desire, O Essence of creation,
To seek Thee always in Thy substances,
Till the performance of those offices
Our bodies, Thine opaque enigmas, do,
Configure Thy transparent justice too.

Lest animal bias should decline our wish
For Thy perfection to identify
Thee with Thy things, to worship fish,
Or solid apples, or the wavering sky,
Our intellectual motions with Thy light
To such intense vibrations, Love, excite,
That we give forth a quiet none can tell
From that in which the lichens live so well.

That this round O of faithfulness we swear
May never wither to an empty nought
Nor petrify into a square,
Mere habits of affection freeze our thought
In their inert society, lest we
Mock virtue with its pious parody
And take our love for granted, Love, permit
Temptations always to endanger it.

Lest, blurring with old moonlight of romance
The landscape of our blemishes, we try
To set up shop on Goodwin Sands,
That we, though lovers, may love soberly,
O Fate, O Felix Osculum, to us
Remain nocturnal and mysterious:
Preserve us from presumption and delay;
O hold us to the voluntary way.



  1. Thank you for posting this Trent. Always such a pleasure to read Auden!
    I’ve read this poem quite a few times now, but never aloud. I’ll give it a try at home.

  2. If I were to give the poem half its due credit, I’d have to compose a whole sermon of my own. That is, if I understood the half of it. But soft.

    The Black Dog is the work of the devil. (Sable genius.)

    Notice the capitalization of love in “O let none say I Love” – the self claiming divinity. This is claim is true, but it cannot be thought (reason must be disciplined and tamed) that the divinity can be easily put into the flesh. That is the ruin of lovers and thinkers – the wrongful prize of “sublimation” – condensing and hardening of gaseous soul into solid physicality. The soul must seek perfection in God’s ordinances, the work of the church, and guard himself from the idolatry of marriage.The correct parsing of the fourth from last stanza is “Till the performance of those offices of our bodies…do [suffice], configure thy transparent justice [Thy substances].” So there is hope that they may one day suffice, but not today.

    I’m convincing myself that the italicized lines are the voice of God, a divine rebuke against the trenchant but bitter remarks of a modern Job. The sentences carry the form of those old questions: “What patience taught the elements…? Who showed the whirlwind…?”

    There’s much much more. But dinner’s served. I’m fully prepared to carry on this conversation in these comment boxes.

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