All the materials of a poem
Are lying scattered about, as in this garden
The lovely lumber of Spring.
All is profusion, confusion: hundred-eyed
The primulae in crimson pink and purple,
Golden at the pupil;
prodigal the nectarine and plum
That fret their petals against a rosy wall.
Flame of the tulip, fume of the blue anemone,
White Alps of blossom in the giant pear-tree,
Peaks and glaciers, rise from the same drab soil.
Far too much joy for comfort:
The images that hurt because they won’t connect.
No poem, no possession, therefore pain.
And struggling now to use
These images that bud from the bed of my mind
I grope about for a form,
As much in the dark, this white and dazzling day,
As the bulb at midwinter; as filled with longing
Even in this green garden
As those who gaze from the cliff at the depths of sea
And know they cannot possess it, being of the shore
And severed from that element for ever.
— W.H. Auden, “The Images That Hurt”
Lately I feel dissatisfied. I know I want a life in which I can support myself and provide value to others. I know I want a life in which I produce more than I consume. I know I want a balance of security and spontaneity. I know this is what I want, but as a 22-year-old I don’t yet see the steps to get there. I can’t connect my present with that future, and the lack of connection engenders a restlessness and a yearning that hurts at times.
At those moments, this poem by Auden is what comes to mind. I recite it to myself to calm myself down when I get restless and overwhelmed thinking about the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to have.
“The Images That Hurt” is about a lot of things: a beautiful vernal garden; the contrast between prolific springtime and impotent writer; the struggles of the creative process. Yet it’s also about anyone who longs for something so badly it hurts. How do you make your ideas and dreams grow and take form? Can we? On the surface, the poem seems to say no, we cannot. Apparently we will always be separated from the thing we long for, always seeking and never attaining it, “severed from that element forever.”
I prefer to interpret the poem a different way. To me, the last line of the poem isn’t the end; the poem’s existence is the actual conclusion. Despite the challenges and hurt, and even because of it, the speaker–or Auden–writes the poem. He picks up the pieces, puts them together, gives them form, possesses what he longed for. The hurt, pain, yearning, struggling, and near-resignation are part of the process. Out of dissatisfaction and yearning and hurt, beauty is created.
And really, isn’t anything worth having worth yearning for?
Photo by Petra Collins