Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 8th, 2017

The line on the blackboard

with one comment

I…told [Stephen Spender] that, when I was a student, I had heard T. S. Eliot lecture. After the lecture one of the students in the audience asked Eliot what he thought the most beautiful line in the English language was—an insane question, really, like asking for the largest number. Much to my amazement Eliot answered without the slightest hesitation, “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” I asked Spender what he though the most beautiful line in the English language was. He got up from his chair and in a firm hand wrote a line of Auden’s on the blackboard. He looked at it with an expression that I have never forgotten—sadness, wonder, regret, perhaps envy. He recited it slowly and then sat back down. There was total silence in the room. I thanked him, and my companion and I left the class.

I had not thought of all of this for many years, but recently, for some reason, it all came back to me, nearly. I remembered everything except the line that Spender wrote on the blackboard. All that I could remember for certain was that it had to do with the moon—somehow the moon…Perhaps I had saved the program of the conference with the line written down on it. I looked in the envelopes for 1981 and could find no trace of this trip. Then I had an idea—lunatic, lunar, perhaps. I would look through Auden’s collected poems and seek out every line having to do with the moon to see if it jogged my memory. One thing that struck me, once I started this task, was that there are surprisingly few references to the moon in these poems…All wonderful lines, but not what I remembered…

Then I got an idea. I would reread Spender’s Journals to see if he mentions a line in Auden’s poetry that refers to the moon. In the entry for the sixth of February 1975, I found this: “It would not be very difficult to imitate the late Auden. [He had died in 1973.] For in his late poetry there is a rather crotchety persona into whose carpet slippers some ambitious young man with a technique as accomplished could slip. But it would be very difficult to imitate the early Auden. ‘This lunar beauty / Has no history, / Is complete and early…'” This, I am sure of it now, is the line that Spender wrote on the blackboard that afternoon in 1981.

Jeremy Bernstein, “The Merely Very Good”

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: