Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Material Interests: Reading Joseph Conrad

Pedro González Bermúdez, dir.: David Lean's Nostromo: The Impossible Dream (2017)

The other night Bronwyn and I watched a documentary on TVNZ-on-Demand about David Lean's abortive attempts to make a feature film of Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel Nostromo. I already knew something about this project, both from Kevin Brownlow's exhaustive biography of the director, and also from the Faber edition of Christopher Hampton's draft filmscript.

Christopher Hampton: The Secret Agent and Nostromo (Faber Filmscripts, 1996)

Don't get me started on Christopher Hampton. I think he's one of the great unsung heroes of our time in both theatre and film. His filmscripts are brilliantly imaginative (Atonement, The Honorary Consul, The Father - those are all his); he won an Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons (a screenplay based on his own successful stage adaptation of Laclos's 1782 novel); and he directed his own screenplay for Carrington, one of my and Bronwyn's all-time favourite movies.

Christopher Hampton, dir. & writ.: Carrington (1995)

Hampton's credentials as an imaginative interpreter of South America are also pretty impressive. He adapted Graham Greene's 1973 novel The Honorary Consul, set in Argentina, for the screen (as I mentioned above), but it's his own play Savages, about the genocide of the Amazonian Indians, which really shows his ability to transport himself imaginatively into that uneasy space where politics meets creativity.

Christopher Hampton: Savages (1974)

In short, what a dream team! David Lean, the 'poet of the far horizon', the epic filmmaker par excellence; the sharpwitted theatrical chameleon Christopher Hampton; and the longest, most complex novel Joseph Conrad - one of the greatest writers of all time - ever wrote. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, lots of things, obviously. I'll leave it to you to watch the whole dreary saga in Pedro González Bermúdez's documentary if such things interest you. Suffice it to say that the irresistible force of money ran into the various immovable egos involved in the project, and the whole thing ended in tears and acrimony. All we're left with is a tantalising might-have-been, like Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon or Orson Welles' Heart of Darkness ...

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904)

I guess what struck me about the tiny fragments of Nostromo included in the documentary, though, was how little most of the speakers seemed to know about the book. I realise it has a rather fearsome reputation. One of the Academics interviewed remarked with a chuckle that he had to tell his students that they shouldn't worry if nothing in it made sense for the first seventy pages or so - after that it would all come into focus. Others opined that 100 or even 200 pages of exposition were required before the action really started to kick in. Clearly an ideal choice for a feature film.

The main problem, of course, is that Conrad's novel isn't really about the character 'Nostromo' [short for nostro uomo, Italian for "Our Man" - a little like Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana]. Nostromo is certainly an important part of the plot. As the 'Capataz de Cargadores' [Captain of the Stevedores], he controls the workers at the port which is the lifeblood of the tiny town of Sulaco. But he remains a somewhat shadowy, enigmatic figure till the end - more like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness than Lord Jim in the novel of that name.

So why should I bother to read it, then? I hear you saying. Quite. Why struggle through an immensely long and detailed account of a revolution in a far-off (imaginary) Latin American country, written by a Polish novelist for whom English was not even a second but a third or fourth language, who had one brief day's sojourn ashore as his sole experience of the entire continent of South America?

When it comes to South-East Asia, Continental Europe, Great Britain - even Africa - Conrad had a rich stock of local knowledge to draw on. He knew the Congo river and how to navigate it (Heart of Darkness); he'd lived as a poor émigré in London (The Secret Agent); he was born and grew up in Central and Eastern Europe (Under Western Eyes); he'd sailed around the intricate islands and bays of the Malay archipelago (Almayer's Folly). But he certainly couldn't claim to know South America first-hand.

It didn't really shock me, then, when I heard of David Lean's attempts to find locations for his own cinematic version of Nostromo in Cuba, Baja California, Spain, and finally the South of France - anywhere, it seems, except the Northern coast of Colombia (or Venezuela) where Conrad's imaginary country must clearly, according to internal evidence (and the subject has been extensively canvassed, I assure you) be situated.

After all, if Spain could stand in for Russia in Doctor Zhivago, why not for the Spanish-speaking republic of Costaguana?

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo (First edition: 2004)

To explain why even so eccentric-sounding and difficult a novel seems to me, at least, so eminently worth reading, I have to go back to the beginnings of my own Conrad adventure.

A long time ago, in a country far, far away - my ancestral homeland: Scotland - I was searching for a project. For some reason which seemed very cogent to me at the time, I'd decided that I wanted to be an Academic, and I knew that for that I needed to do a PhD. Even then I was as addicted to Fantasy and Sci-fi as I was to 'serious' literature, so I came up with the idea of writing an examination of imaginary countries in fiction.

Colin Manlove (1942-2020)

Thanks to a UK Commonwealth scholarship, I'd ended up studying at Edinburgh University, where my supervisor - a well-known historian of fantasy literature, Mr. Colin Manlove - decided that the scope of the project was too broad, and that, since I'd started off with an essay about imaginary countries in South America, I should continue along those lines, using a select set of texts to interrogate the different ways in which that region had been 'recreated' by European observers - some of them with minimal or non-existent knowledge of the actual places they were writing about.

E. M. W. Tillyard: The Epic Strain in the English Novel (1958)

Clearly Conrad was an ideal choice. His imaginary country of Costaguana is lovingly described, in immense detail, in the pages of Nostromo - the celebrated critic E. M. W. Tillyard in fact devoted an entire appendix in his book The Epic Strain in the English Novel solely to the geography of the novel - and yet it's based on little except armchair research and that one vital day ashore on the shores of the Caribbean.

C. S. Lewis & E. M. W. Tillyard: The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (1939)

Conrad is a much written-about author. He's been at the centre of the Eng. Lit. canon for quite a long time, and the books, monographs and theses are piled high on virtually every aspect of his work. Almost at once I was faced with the dilemma of how much of all this I could possibly read, and what good it would do me if I did.

Joseph Conrad: Collected Works (New edition: 1947-57)

Instead, I decided I would just read Conrad. And so I did. I started off on p.1 of Almayer's Folly (1896), and worked my way to the final pages of the unfinished, posthumous Suspense: A Napoleonic Novel (1925). Along the way I read all of his short stories, essays, and other materials such as journals and letters. You'll find a reasonably comprehensive listing of all that material below.

It took me quite a while. Mind you, I'd encountered some of them before, but reading them like that, in chronological sequence, taught me a lot of interesting things about Conrad I hadn't really understood before. And it also gave me a good vantage point to judge the various bits of secondary literature about him I really had to read.

I've often felt that that was a turning point for me. When it comes to a choice between knowing an author's work well, and having an intimate knowledge of the secondary literature about them, I'll always plump for the former.

This is not - to put it mildly - standard academic process. Bleating on about the conflicting views of various nobodies on some canonical work is definitely the way to get ahead in literary studies. But making any reference to other works by that writer besides the one under immediate discussion is often meant with blank looks.

I recall once, when I worked at Auckland University, attending a talk by a visiting British professor on the nature of literary biography. Since he was primarily a James Joyce scholar, he'd decided to contrast Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce with (I think) Deirdre Bair's biography of Samuel Beckett. It all went swimmingly until, in the q-&-a after his talk, I asked quite innocently how well he thought his conclusions applied to other classic literary biographies: Leon Edel's life of Henry James, for instance, or even Ellmann's own biographies of Yeats and Wilde?

Richard Ellmann: Oscar Wilde (1987)

He glared at me angrily, as if I were deliberately conspiring to show him up. "I haven't read them," he grunted. I guess I was more surprised than shocked. How could one set out to pontificate about literary biography without reading at least a few of the major ones? It seems that the two he'd chosen constituted his whole knowledge of the subject ("Good enough for a tour of the provinces," he'd no doubt been reassured by his colleagues if he had felt any apprehension).

I'm afraid that that's a phenomenon I've encountered many times since then: huge generalisations based on insufficient reading, either of the author one's studying or the field as a whole.

Mind you, even way back in Biblical times the author of Ecclesiastes could lament that "of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh." (Eccl, 12: 12). Nor has the situation improved much since then. It's literally impossible to keep up with all the work in one's own field nowadays, however restricted it may be, and the publications continue to pile up inexorably.

But reading Conrad! That was a joy. If you leave out the two collaborations with Ford Madox Ford, and long novellas such as "Heart of Darkness" and "Typhoon," there are only really 14 novels to cover, and even the weaker, later ones always have something unexpected to offer. If you've only ever read Nostromo, how can you possibly understand how it builds on and intensified the techniques he'd already tried out in his earlier work? How can you appreciate the incredibly swift advance in his art from the comparative crudeness of his first couple of novels to the certainty and mastery of his work in the early 1900s? It took him seven years to go from Almayer's Folly to Nostromo - an almost incredible conceptual leap.

Mind you, just sticking to the primary texts is no panacea. If you read all of Conrad, does that mean you have to read all of Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, John Galsworthy, Henry James, and H. G. Wells as well? And if you want to understand Conrad's larger literary milieu, do you have to read Flaubert, Turgenev, and Henryk Sienkiewicz? I suppose that the real answer is yes, but who has the time? You have to trust someone else's judgement at some stage, and there is a limit.

Nevertheless, I'd rather know Conrad well than the secondary literature on Conrad. It may not apply to every novelist, but it's certainly important for him. It can be difficult to pick up a work such as Nostromo and start to figure it out if you don't know Lord Jim or (especially) such terrifyingly deadpan early stories as "An Outpost of Progress" or "Heart of Darkness."

Conrad has a point to make. That's the vital thing to remember. Like all jobbing authors, he had to make a buck, which meant appealing to the public to some degree, but for the most part he wanted to talk about how the world actually works to an audience who'd been conditioned to demand romantic legends and fairy-tales. His work can be harsh at times, but that's one of the main reasons it's lasted - that, and his extraordinary gift for language, which still seems miraculous all these years later.

Joseph Conrad: Collected Works (1925-26)

"So, after all that song and dance, what exactly do you think Nostromo is about?" I can hear you saying. "Put up or shut up!"

Well, I'm glad you asked me that. If you want to know how Nostromo fitted into the larger scheme of my thesis: the motivations (and mechanics) behind the creation of imaginary worlds, you can consult my original conclusions here. If you want to read the tidied-up version I published in Landfall a couple of years later, you can find it here.

If you want to cut straight to the chase, though, here it is: the material interests. Just that. That phrase. The material interests.

I realise that it needs some unpacking. Let me just start off by saying that where most authors treat the subject of buried treasure as an excuse for romantic derring-do and exotic locations, Conrad turns the idea on its head. What interests him about treasure is the things that financiers and the governments they control will do to maintain a steady supply of it. All the more adventurous aspects, though present, are really secondary to this sober-sided view of the realities of global supply and demand.

To explain what that means, I'll have to tell you a story. It's not a particularly glamorous tale, and not one to be proud of exactly, but it's one of the main things that was in Conrad's mind as he set out to write his great novel.

Not so very long ago, ships still had to navigate all the way around Cape Horn to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ever since the French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps had opened the Suez Canal in 1869, at least part of the problem of how to get goods from East to West (and vice versa) had been solved, but there still remained a great bottleneck to world trade in the form of the immense double continent of the Americas.

De Lesseps tried to follow up his success with a French-backed Panama Canal project in 1879, but it ended in debt and acrimony a decade later. Which left the problem exactly where it was.

At which point the Americans entered, stage left. It was a perfect project for the tub-thumping, sabre-waving US President Theodore Roosevelt, so - with his connivance - in 1902 the Senate voted in favour of trying to acquire suitable territory for a canal in the isthmus of Panama, then part of the Republic of Colombia.

Colombia wasn't quite so keen on this idea, so the Americans fomented a revolution in the north of their country with the sole object of creating a smaller, more malleable government with which they could deal. Sure enough, in 1903 the Republic of Panama was born, and promptly signed a deal with the US government offering them virtual sovereignty over the so-called 'canal zone'.

And so the great Panama Canal came into being, as a direct result of one of the dirtiest and most cynical bits of chicanery in contemporary history. Not that one would have to delve far into the annals of European colonialism to find even worse pieces of landgrabbing - in the Congo itself, for instance.

Conrad took careful note of all this (as he reveals through certain comments about 'Yankee conquistadors' in his correspondence with the veteran South American traveller R. B. Cunninghame Graham), and it had a part in inspiring him to put something similar at the heart of his novel - instead of the canal itself, though, we have the silver of the mine.

It might help, at this point, to know a little more about Conrad's own background. I wrote some notes about that for my Stage Three Travel Writing course, where we contrasted his 'Congo Diary' with the written-up, fictionalised version in 'Heart of Darkness.' Here are a few of the points I made there:
Joseph Conrad (or Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, if you prefer) ... grew up speaking Polish, in Poland. And yet he didn't - because there was no such country. Prussia, Russia and Austria had divided up Poland between them in the late eighteenth century, and it didn't achieve independence again until 1918, after the First World War.

Conrad's father Apollo was a writer and a patriot, and was accordingly arrested by the Tsarist authorities in 1861, when Joseph was four, and sent into exile in Siberia. Both his mother and father died as a result of the harsh conditions they were subjected to there, so Joseph was an orphan by the age of 11.

In an autobiographical essay Conrad records that he was fascinated by maps as a young boy, and particularly by the blank spot in the centre of Africa. "When I grow up I will go there," he said to himself - and, amazingly, many years later, after leaving Poland for France, and then for the British Merchant Marine, he did precisely that. He went there - to the heart of the King Leopold's private colony on the Congo river - and what he saw and brought back from that experience eventually became the story Heart of Darkness.

For me, the essential thing to remember when trying to understand this story is that Conrad was not British. His narrator and alter-ego Marlow is British - and is accordingly rather scornful of "foreigners", especially their attempts to run viable colonies. Conrad, though, as a loyal Pole, was scornful of Imperialism in all its forms - British, Russian and American - and his feelings about inhabiting a "blank spot" on the map can hardly be said to have been unambiguous either.

His is certainly an art of contrast and comparison. The fascinating thing is that it was by enlarging his terms of reference, by making his very real experience of the horror of the Belgian Congo into a fictionalised story, that he managed to create a work which has sparked so many analogues and echoes since - notably Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now.
Let's just say, then, that colonialism and realpolitik are never a neutral matter for Conrad. His immense suspicion of Russia's imperial ambitions, and consequent disdain for their culture, was regarded as a strange blindspot by his more complacent contemporaries in literary London, as they exclaimed over the beauties of Chekhov and Tolstoy.

In the age of Putin, it's perhaps a little easier to understand how Conrad felt, and it's one of the many reasons that his works have such resonance today - for those who can be bothered to read them, that is. Virginia Woolf once famously remarked that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "one of the few English novels written for grownup people." One can see her point. The motivations described in that book are not really fully comprehensible to childish or even adolescent readers.

Conrad, too, almost alone among his contemporaries, was writing for grownups. The glamorous seascapes and long tropical descriptions he's most celebrated for certainly exist - and they continue to exert a strange attraction over those of us who love the world he created. But the deep wounds inflicted by his own upbringing and the brutal suppression of his native land made it impossible for him to share the smug self-satisfaction of the rest of the English-speaking world.

The First World War hit European culture like a bomb. But even then the writers of the time could valorise it into a unique and world-shaking event: the 'war to end all wars.' Conrad knew better. Small wars kill and devastate in just the same way as global cataclysms. Greed - the material interests - and the casual cruelty it gives rise to, are something which needs to be analysed in depth if one is even to begin to understand it.

That's the main reason why Nostromo is a novel which can be spoken of in the same breath as Tolstoy's War and Peace. It attempts great things in a deliberately and carefully limited space. Nostromo the man is just one of the victims of this terrible process. Attempting to put him at the centre of this story of cynical greed and opportunism is to miss the stark contrast Conrad is suggesting between the idealism and pure intentions of so many of his nobler characters and the brutal ends to which they come.

Did David Lean understand all that? Maybe. Though some of the more inflammatory statements about the glories of the British Raj he made while filming A Passage to India do give one pause. Certainly, as one might expect from the author of Savages, Christopher Hampton got it straight away, and held it in the centre of his vision of the story. Perhaps that's why he was fired.

I do miss Lean's movie. The 1997 TV series did its best to embody Nostromo as a whole, but ended up as a bit of an incoherent mess. Once again, they seem to have thought that because that's what it's called, that's what the novel is about. The careful way in which Conrad establishes the financier Charles Gould at the centre of the revolutionary action of the novel is largely ignored. And it would take a master film-maker to suggest it - perhaps one with a more Brechtian bent: Martin Scorsese, for instance.

Much has been made of the fact that Conrad was a man of action, a professional sea captain, as well as a writer - and it's all true - but more needs to be said about the hardheaded realism with which he confronted the vagaries of history. Despite his love of romance and mystery, he could never ignore the boot in the face, and the pitiless economic forces which guided it.

Alastair Reid, dir.: Nostromo (1997)

Alvin Langdon Coburn: Joseph Conrad (1916)

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
['Joseph Conrad']


[books owned by me are marked in bold:]

  1. Almayer's Folly (1895)
    • Included in: The First and Last of Conrad: Almayer's Folly; An Outcast of the Islands; The Arrow of Gold; & The Rover. 1895, 1896, 1919, & 1923. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1929.
  2. An Outcast of the Islands (1896)
    • An Outcast of the Islands. 1896. Ed. J. H. Stape & Hans van Marle. The World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
    • Included in: The First and Last of Conrad: Almayer's Folly; An Outcast of the Islands; The Arrow of Gold; & The Rover. 1895, 1896, 1919, & 1923. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1929.
  3. The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897)
    • Included in: The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' / Typhoon; Amy Foster; Falk; Tomorrow. 1897 & 1903. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
  4. Heart of Darkness (1899)
    • Included in: Two Tales of the Congo: Heart of Darkness & An Outpost of Progress. Copper-Engravings by Dolf Rieser. London: The Folio Society. 1952.
    • Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text; Backgrounds and Sources; Essays in Criticism. 1899. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. A Norton Critical Edition. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963.
    • Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text; Backgrounds and Sources; Essays in Criticism. 1899. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 1963. Second Edition. 1971. Third Edition. A Norton Critical Edition. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.
  5. Lord Jim (1900)
    • Lord Jim: A Tale. 1900. Joseph Conrad’s Works: Collected Edition. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1946.
    • Lord Jim: Authoritative Text; Backgrounds; Sources; Criticism. 1900. Ed. Thomas C. Moser. A Norton Critical Edition. 1968. 2nd ed. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
  6. [with Ford Madox Ford] The Inheritors (1901)
    • Included in: [with Ford Madox Ford] The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story / Laughing Anne: A Play / One Day More: A Play. 1901 & 1924. Illustrated by Jutta Ash. Joseph Conrad: Complete Works. Geneva: Heron Books, 1969.
  7. [with Ford Madox Ford] Romance (1903)
    • [with Ford Madox Ford] Romance. 1903. Joseph Conrad’s Works: Collected Edition. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1949.
  8. Nostromo (1904)
    • Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904. The Works of Joseph Conrad: Uniform Edition. London & Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. / Paris: J. M. Dent et Fils, 1923.
    • Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904. Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith. 1983. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
    • Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904. Introduction by Richard Holmes. Lithographs by Paul Hogarth. London: The Folio Society, 1984.
  9. The Secret Agent (1907)
    • The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. 1907. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  10. Under Western Eyes (1911)
    • Under Western Eyes. 1911. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.
  11. Chance (1913)
    • Chance: A Tale in Two Parts. 1913. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
  12. Victory (1915)
    • Victory: An Island Tale. 1915. Introduction by V. S. Pritchett. London: The Book Society, 1952.
  13. The Shadow Line (1917)
    • The Shadow Line: A Confession. 1917. Ed. Jacques Berthoud. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  14. The Arrow of Gold (1919)
    • Included in: The First and Last of Conrad: Almayer's Folly; An Outcast of the Islands; The Arrow of Gold; & The Rover. 1895, 1896, 1919, & 1923. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1929.
  15. The Rescue (1920)
    • The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows. 1920. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.
  16. The Rover (1923)
    • Included in: The First and Last of Conrad: Almayer's Folly; An Outcast of the Islands; The Arrow of Gold; & The Rover. 1895, 1896, 1919, & 1923. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1929.
  17. Suspense (1925)
    • Suspense. Introduction by Richard Curle. London & Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1925.

  18. Short Story Collections:

  19. Tales of Unrest (1898) [TU]
    • Tales of Unrest [The Idiots; The Lagoon; An Outpost of Progress; The Return; Karain: A Memory]. 1898. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
  20. Youth and Two Other Stories (1902) [Y]
    • Youth; Heart of Darkness; The End of the Tether: Three Stories. 1902. Joseph Conrad’s Works: Collected Edition. 1946. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1961.
  21. Typhoon and Other Stories (1903) [T]
    • Included in: The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' / Typhoon; Amy Foster; Falk; Tomorrow. 1897 & 1903. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
  22. A Set of Six (1908) [S6]
    • A Set of Six [Gaspar Ruiz; The Informer; The Brute; An Anarchist; The Duel; Il Conde]. 1908. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1927.
  23. 'Twixt Land and Sea (1912) [TLS]
    • ’Twixt Land and Sea: Three Tales [A Smile of Fortune; The Secret Sharer; Freya of the Seven Isles]. 1912. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  24. Within the Tides (1915) [WT]
    • Within the Tides [The Planter of Malata; The Partner; The Inn of the Two Witches; Because of the Dollars]. 1915. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  25. Tales of Hearsay (1925) [TH]
    • Included in: Tales of Hearsay and Last Essays [The Warrior's Soul; Prince Roman; The Tale; The Black Mate]. 1925 & 1926. Joseph Conrad’s Works: Collected Edition. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1955.
  26. The Complete Short Stories (1933)
    • The Complete Short Stories [To-morrow (1902); Amy Foster (1901); Karain: A Memory (1897); The Idiots (1896); An Outpost of Progress (1896); The Return (1897); The Lagoon (1896); Youth: A Narrative (1898); Heart of Darkness (1898-99); The End of the Tether (1902); Gaspar Ruiz (1904-5); The Informer (1906); The Brute (1906); An Anarchist (1905); The Duel (1908); Il Conde (1908); A Smile of Fortune (1910); The Secret Sharer (1909); Freya of the Seven Isles (1910-11); The Planter of Malata (1914); The Partner (1911); The Inn of the Two Witches (1913); Because of the Dollars (1914); The Warrior's Soul (1915-16); Prince Roman (1910); The Tale (1916); The Black Mate (1886)]. London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers), Ltd., [1933].
  27. The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad. Ed. Samuel Hynes. 4 vols (1991-92)
    • The Stories, Volume I [The Idiots (1896); The Lagoon (1896); An Outpost of Progress (1896); Karain: A Memory (1897); The Return (1897); Youth: A Narrative (1898); Amy Foster (1901); To-morrow (1902); Gaspar Ruiz: A Romantic Tale (1904-5)]. New York: The Ecco Press, 1991.
    • The Stories, Volume II [An Anarchist: A Desperate Tale (1905); The Informer: An Ironic Tale (1906); The Brute: An Indignant Tale (1906); The Black Mate (1886); Il Conde: A Pathetic Tale (1908); The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast (1909); Prince Roman (1910); The Partner (1911); The Inn of the Two Witches: A Find (1913); Because of the Dollars (1914); The Warrior's Soul (1915-16); The Tale (1916); Appendix: The Sisters (1895)]. New York: The Ecco Press, 1992.
    • The Tales, Volume III [Heart of Darkness (1898-99); Typhoon (1899-1901]; The End of the Tether (1902)]. New York: The Ecco Press, 1992.
    • The Tales, Volume IV [Falk: A Reminiscence (1901); The Duel (1908); A Smile of Fortune (1910); Freya of the Seven Isles: A Story of Shallow Waters (1910-11); The Planter of Malata (1914)]. New York: The Ecco Press, 1992.

  28. Stories:

    1. The Black Mate (1886) [TH]
    2. The Sisters (1895)
    3. The Idiots (1896) [TU]
    4. The Lagoon (1896) [TU]
    5. An Outpost of Progress (1896) [TU]
    6. Karain: A Memory (1897) [TU]
    7. The Return (1897) [TU]
    8. Youth: A Narrative (1898) [Y]
    9. Heart of Darkness (1898-99) [Y]
    10. Typhoon (1899-1901] [T]
    11. Amy Foster (1901) [T]
    12. Falk: A Reminiscence (1901) [T]
    13. To-morrow (1902) [T]
    14. The End of the Tether (1902) [Y]
    15. Gaspar Ruiz (1904-5) [S6]
    16. An Anarchist (1905) [S6]
    17. The Informer (1906) [S6]
    18. The Brute (1906) [S6]
    19. The Duel (1908) [S6]
    20. Il Conde (1908) [S6]
    21. [with Ford Madox Ford] The Nature of a Crime (1909) [CD]
    22. A Smile of Fortune (1910) [TLS]
    23. The Secret Sharer (1909) [TLS]
    24. Prince Roman (1910) [TH]
    25. Freya of the Seven Isles (1910-11) [TLS]
    26. The Partner (1911) [WT]
    27. The Inn of the Two Witches (1913) [WT]
    28. The Planter of Malata (1914) [WT]
    29. Because of the Dollars (1914) [WT]
    30. The Warrior's Soul (1915-16) [TH]
    31. The Tale (1916) [TH]


  29. The Mirror of the Sea (1906)
    • Included in: The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions / A Personal Record: Some Reminiscences. 1906 & 1912. Everyman’s Library, 1189. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1972.
  30. A Personal Record (1912)
    • Included in: The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions / A Personal Record: Some Reminiscences. 1906 & 1912. Everyman’s Library, 1189. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1972.
  31. Notes on Life and Letters (1921)
    • Notes on Life and Letters. London & Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1921.
  32. Last Essays (1926)
    • Included in: Tales of Hearsay and Last Essays [The Warrior's Soul; Prince Roman; The Tale; The Black Mate]. 1925 & 1926. Joseph Conrad’s Works: Collected Edition. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1955.
  33. The Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces (1978) [CD]
    • Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces. Ed. Zdzislaw Najder. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978.
  34. Conrad's Congo (2013)
    • Conrad’s Congo. Ed. J. H. Stape. Preface by Adam Hochschild. London: The Folio Society, 2013.

  35. Plays:

  36. One Day More (1917)
  37. Laughing Anne (1923)
    • Laughing Anne & One Day More: Two Plays. Introduction by John Galsworthy. London: John Castle, 1924.
    • Included in: [with Ford Madox Ford] The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story / Laughing Anne: A Play / One Day More: A Play. 1901 & 1924. Illustrated by Jutta Ash. Joseph Conrad: Complete Works. Geneva: Heron Books, 1969.

  38. Letters:

  39. Conrad’s Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends. Ed. Zdzislaw Najder. Trans. Halina Carroll. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  40. Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Ed. C. T. Watts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

  41. Secondary:

  42. Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. 1960. Pelican Biographies. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
  43. Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. Research Associate: Cy Young. 1996. A Wyatt Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
  44. Conrad, Borys. My Father: Joseph Conrad. London: Calder & Boyars, 1970.
  45. Curle, Richard. Joseph Conrad: A Study. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1914.
  46. Eames, Andrew. Crossing the Shadow Line: Travels in South-East Asia. Sceptre. London: Hodder and Stoughton Paperbacks, 1986.
  47. Ford, Ford Madox. Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. 1924. New York: The Ecco Press, 1989.
  48. Hampton, Christopher. The Secret Agent and Nostromo: Based on the Novels by Joseph Conrad. Faber Filmscripts. London: Faber, 1996.
  49. Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. A Biography. London: Faber, 1979.
  50. Sherry, Norman. Conrad's Eastern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Friday, March 18, 2022

SF Luminaries: The Singular Genius of Gene Wolfe

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. No, it's not a misprint. Recently I bought a rather battered first edition copy of Gene Wolfe's debut collection of short stories and novellas from Hard-to-Find Books in Auckland, one of the few local bookshops which still maintains a healthy stock of old SF paperbacks.

Admittedly it's not really a thing of beauty. That cover image, by Don Maitz, is quite accurate to the story it illustrates, but seems otherwise almost calculated not to appeal. The paper inside is brittle and the print miniscule. But the stories themselves are breathtaking!

One of the incidental characters in "Tracking Story" remarks to its unnamed protagonist:
You know nothing. You are like a child who has wandered by accident into a theater half a minute before the final curtain. You see people moving around, some masked; you hear music, observe actions you do not understand. But you do not know if the play is a tragedy or a comedy, or even know whether those you see are the actors or the audience. [217]
That seems as good a way as any of summing up Wolfe's approach to storytelling. We know nothing. Nothing we are told can be trusted. No narrator is reliable, no action not open to doubt. How, then, are his readers to make their way through this baffling labyrinth of signs?

Along with the untrustworthy or just plain ignorant narrator, Wolfe is addicted to the idea of the story within a story. In the Nebula-award nominated "Seven American Nights," for instance, much of the plot hinges on the Muslim hero's haunting of a Washington theatre where J. M. Barrie's supernatural play "Mary Rose" is being performed. The more you know about that play, the more sense Wolfe's own story will make to you.

The extraordinary "Eyeflash Miracles", another Nebula Award nominee for best novella, overlays the experiences of a blind child runaway with, on the one hand, The Wizard of Oz - on the other, the Hindu myth of Krishna and Vishnu.

Gene Wolfe: Soldier of the Mist (1986)

The 'Soldier of the Mist' trilogy, possibly my favourite among all of his works (which I wrote about in an earlier blogpost here), is told by a brain-damaged soldier incapable of forming new memories, whose attention span lasts roughly one day. His account of the retreat of Xerxes' army from Classical Greece after their defeat at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE is therefore compiled from a series of disjointed diary entries, forgotten almost as soon as they're written down.

Another thing his head injury has gifted him with is the ability to see and converse with the gods. Or rather, the capacity to believe that that is what he is doing. It sounds like a pretty strange plot premise. It is an extremely weird idea for a story, but somehow Wolfe succeeds in making it both compelling and poignant.

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)

The Book of the New Sun is undoubtedly the work he's best known for - particularly the first volume of the tetralogy, Shadow of the Torturer. It is, in many ways, one of the most direct and straightforward of his stories, and yet even it seems, at times, almost calculated to confuse.

Why? Why did Wolfe refuse to tailor his works to the market? Why did he always insist on applying just one more turn to the screw? Not by accident did he issue a number of his limited edition novellas through an outfit called "The Pretentious Press".

One reason may have been, initially, because he had a full-time job as an industrial engineer for most of his working life, from the mid-1950s until 1984, when he retired to become a full-time writer. In other words, he didn't have to make continuous sales to the pulps for a living. He was, instead, free to experiment.

For the most part, though, it must have been just because he had that sort of mind. From the very beginning his work seemed more in tune with contemporary tricksters and game-players such as Barthelme and Borges, Cortázar and Calvino, than Sci-fi gurus such as Asimov and Clarke.

Gene Wolfe: The Wizard Knight (2004)

Even his late sword-and-sorcery epic The Wizard Knight goes through an almost unbelievably convoluted set of plot pathways before reaching its denouement. Often, as you read him, you feel that this time he's gone too far: this time the weirdness has finally flipped over into complete incomprehensibility. But no, every time he pulls it off. You may not end up liking the result, but you can't deny the courage of a writer who literally doesn't care if you get it or not.

Caviare to the general? To some extent, yes. But not nearly as much as one might think at first sight. That short story collection I started with, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, is structured around a set of three stories (subsequently republished, with a new story, "Death of the Island Doctor", as The Wolfe Archipelago):
  1. "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (1970)
  2. "The Death of Dr. Island" (1973)
  3. "The Doctor of Death Island" (1978)
The second of these, "The Death of Dr. Island", won the Nebula award for best short story in 1974. It's the story illustrated on the cover reprinted above. Amusing as all these variations are, though, they represent more of a by-product than the centre of Wolfe's endeavours.

What marks out that story - all of his stories - from those of other postmodern fabulists is the profound compassion and empathy at the heart of them. Blind and crippled children, brain-damaged adults - these are his narrators of choice. To some extent his jokiness may have served as a screen against too facile a descent into sentimentality. Instead, it's the sheer innate intelligence behind them which makes his more terrifying and violent stories tolerable.

His work is a miracle. Given its intensity, it's perhaps best taken in small doses. However, if you haven't yet read any of it, you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as possible. It's not for nothing that Ursula Le Guin hailed him as "our Melville". He has something of Melville's scope and thematic range - something too of Melville's deep, abiding strangeness.

Gene Wolfe: The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972)

Gene Wolfe

Gene Rodman Wolfe


  1. Operation Ares. A Berkley Science Fiction Novel. New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1970.
  2. The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three Novellas. 1972. London: Quartet Books, 1975.
  3. Peace. 1975. New English Library Paperbacks. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1989.
  4. The Devil in a Forest. Ace Science Fiction. New York: Ace Books, 1976.
  5. The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
    1. The Shadow of the Torturer. 1980. London: Arrow Books, 1983.
    2. The Claw of the Conciliator. 1981. London: Arrow Books, 1983.
    3. The Sword of the Lictor. 1982. London: Arrow Books, 1984.
    4. The Citadel of the Autarch. 1983. London: Arrow Books, 1983.
  6. Free Live Free. 1984. London: Arrow Books, 1986.
  7. The Soldier Series (1986-2006)
    1. Soldier of the Mist. 1986. An Orbit Book. London: Futura Publications, 1987.
    2. Soldier of Arete. 1989. New English Library, 1990.
    3. Soldier of Sidon. A Tor Book. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006.
  8. The Urth of the New Sun. 1987. An Orbit Book. London: Futura Publications, 1988.
  9. There Are Doors. 1988. An Orbit Book. London: Futura Publications, 1990.
  10. Castleview. 1990. London: New English Library, 1991.
  11. Pandora, By Holly Hollander. 1990. London: New English Library, 1991.
  12. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96)
    1. Litany of the Long Sun: Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun. 1993 & 1994. An Orb Edition. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, n.d.
    2. Epiphany of the Long Sun: Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. 1994 & 1996. An Orb Edition. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, n.d.
  13. The Book of the Short Sun
    1. On Blue's Waters (1999)
    2. In Green's Jungles (2000)
    3. Return to the Whorl (2001)
  14. The Wizard Knight. 2004. Gollancz. London: Orion Publishing Group, 2005.
    1. The Knight (2004)
    2. The Wizard (2004)
  15. Pirate Freedom (2007)
  16. An Evil Guest (2008)
  17. The Sorcerer's House (2010)
  18. Home Fires (2011)
  19. The Land Across (2013)
  20. A Borrowed Man (2015)
  21. Interlibrary Loan (2020)

  22. Story collections:

  23. The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. New York: Pocket Books, 1980.
  24. Gene Wolfe's Book of Days. 1981. London: Arrow Books, 1985.
  25. The Wolfe Archipelago (1983)
    1. "Death of the Island Doctor" (1983)
    2. "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (1970)
    3. "The Death of Dr. Island" (1973)
    4. "The Doctor of Death Island" (1978)
  26. Plan(e)t Engineering (1984)
  27. Bibliomen (1984)
  28. Storeys from the Old Hotel (1988)
  29. Endangered Species. 1989. An Orbit Book. London: Futura Publications, 1990.
  30. Castle of Days (1992)
    1. Castle of the Otter
    2. Gene Wolfe's Book of Days
  31. The Young Wolfe (1992)
  32. Strange Travelers (2000)
  33. Innocents Aboard (2004)
  34. Starwater Strains: New Science Fiction Stories. A Tor Book. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2005.
  35. The Best of Gene Wolfe (2009)

  36. Chapbooks:

  37. At the Point of Capricorn (1983)
  38. The Boy Who Hooked the Sun (1985)
  39. Empires of Foliage and Flower: A Tale From the Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky (1987)
  40. The Arimaspian Legacy (1988)
  41. Slow Children at Play (1989)
  42. The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin is the Sun (1991)
  43. The Case of the Vanishing Ghost (1991)
  44. The Grave Secret (1991)
  45. [with Neil Gaiman] A Walking Tour of the Shambles (2002)
  46. Talk of Mandrakes (2003)
  47. Christmas Inn (2005)
  48. Strange Birds (2006)
  49. Memorare (2008)

  50. Non-fiction:

  51. The Castle of the Otter: Essays (1982)
  52. Letters Home (1991)
  53. Shadows of the New Sun: Essays (2007)

Gene Wolfe: Starwater Strains (2005)

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Auden: The Complete Poems (finally!)

W. H. Auden: Poems, 1: 1927-1939 (2022)

Way, way back, in 1997 (it must have been), some 25 years ago, when I was first tentatively trying out as a means of obtaining books I couldn't find in the bookshops here in Auckland, I remember that my initial pre-order was for two books I wanted to see the moment they appeared: the Complete Poems of Herman Melville (in the Northwestern-Newberry Edition), and the Complete Poems of W. H. Auden (in the Princeton University Press edition).

It's been a long wait.

But now, at last, after two volumes of 'dramatic works' (1988 & 1993), and no fewer than six volumes of collected prose (1996-2015), it seems that Princeton's complete edition of Auden's works is about to culminate in two volumes of poems. Here's a rough breakdown of the constituent parts of their edition to date:

W. H. Auden: Plays and Other Dramatic Writings: 1928-1938 (1988)

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden:

  1. [with Christopher Isherwood]. Plays and Other Dramatic Writings: 1928-1938. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1988.
    1. The Dance of Death (1933)
    2. [with Christopher Isherwood] The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935)
    3. [with Christopher Isherwood] The Ascent of F6 (1936)
    4. [with Christopher Isherwood] On the Frontier (1938)

  2. [with Chester Kallman]. Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings: 1939-1973. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993.
    1. Paul Bunyan. Music by Benjamin Britten. 1941 (1976)
    2. [with Chester Kallman] The Rake's Progress. Music by Igor Stravinsky (1951)
    3. [with Chester Kallman] Elegy for Young Lovers. Music by Hans Werner Henze (1956)
    4. [with Chester Kallman] The Magic Flute, by Emanuel Schikaneder (1956)
    5. [with Chester Kallman] The Bassarids. Music by Hans Werner Henze (1961)
    6. [with Chester Kallman] Love's Labour's Lost. Music by Nicolas Nabokov (1973)

  3. Prose and Travel Books in Verse and Prose. Volume 1: 1926-1938. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1996.
    1. Essays and Reviews, 1926-1938
    2. [with Louis MacNeice] Letters from Iceland (1937)
    3. [with T. C. Worsley] Education: Today - and Tomorrow (1939)
    4. [with Christopher Isherwood] Journey to a War (1939)

  4. Prose. Volume 2: 1939-1948. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
    1. Essays and Reviews, 1939-1948
    2. The Prolific and the Devourer. 1939 (1993)

  5. W. H. Auden: Prose. Volume 2: 1939-1948 (2002)

  6. Prose. Volume 3: 1949-1955. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.
    1. Essays and Reviews, 1949-1955
    2. The Enchaféd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (1950)

  7. W. H. Auden: Prose. Volume 3: 1949-1955 (2008)

  8. Prose. Volume 4: 1956-1962. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.
    1. Essays and Reviews, 1956-1962
    2. The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (1962)

  9. W. H. Auden: Prose. Volume 4: 1956-1962 (2010)

  10. Prose. Volume 5: 1963-1968. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. xlii + 562 pp.
    1. Essays and Reviews, 1963-1966
    2. Secondary Worlds: The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, Delivered at Eliot College in the University of Kent at Canterbury, October, 1967 (1968)
    3. Essays and Reviews, 1967-1968

  11. W. H. Auden: Prose. Volume 5: 1963-1968 (2015)

  12. Prose. Volume 6: 1969-1973. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. xiv + 790 pp.
    1. A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970)
    2. Essays and Reviews, 1969-1973
    3. Forewords and Afterwords (1973)

  13. W. H. Auden: Prose. Volume 6: 1969-1973 (2015)

  14. Poems. Volume I: 1927-1939. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022. xxx + 808 pp.
      Poems 1930-1939:
    1. Poems (1930 / 1933)
    2. Other Poems, 1927-1930
    3. The Orators: An English Study (1932)
    4. Other Poems, 1931-1935
    5. On This Island [aka Look, Stranger!] (1936)
    6. Spain (1937)
    7. Other Poems, 1936-1939
    8. Poems from Letters from Iceland (1937)
    9. Poems from Journey to a War (1939)
    10. Another Time (1940)
    11. Juvenilia: Early Poems 1922-1928:
    12. Poems (1928)
    13. Other Published Poems, 1922-1928
    14. Appendices:
      • Verses for School Magazines, 1933-1939
      • [with Benjamin Britten] Our Hunting Fathers (1936)
      • Poems Abandoned before Publication
      • Songs and Other Musical Pieces Abandoned before Publication

  15. W. H. Auden: Poems, 1: 1927-1939 (2022)

  16. Poems. Volume II: 1940-1973. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022. viii + 1106 pp.
      Poems 1940-1973:
    1. The Double Man [aka New Year Letter] (1941)
    2. Other Poems, 1940-1944
    3. For the Time Being (1945)
    4. Poems First Collected in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945)
    5. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947)
    6. Other Poems, 1945-1950
    7. Nones (1951)
    8. Other Published and Pothumous Poems, 1951-1973
    9. The Shield of Achilles (1955)
    10. Homage to Clio (1960)
    11. About the House (1965)
    12. City Without Walls and Other Poems (1969)
    13. Academic Graffiti (1971)
    14. Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (1972)
    15. Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974)
    16. Appendices:
      • Collected and Selected Editions
      • Auden's Choices for Anthologies
      • Published Recordings
      • Poems Abandoned before Publication
      • A List of Auden's Translations

  17. W. H. Auden: Poems, 2: 1940-1973 (2022)

    W. H. Auden: Poems, 2: 1940-1973 (2022)

  18. Personal Writings: Selected Letters, Journals, and Poems Written for Friends. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, tba.

And why, exactly, should this be exciting news for anyone except Auden fanatics? Some time ago I outlined a few of my reasons for feeling so enthusiastic about his work in the following post. Is there more to it than that, though? We are, after all, coming up (next year) to the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Shouldn't we give him a bit of a rest?

Peter Davison, ed.: The Complete Works of George Orwell (1997-98)

I'm afraid not. Like his close contemporary (though not really friend) George Orwell, W. H. Auden maintains his relevance for readers today. I guess one reason why is because both grappled directly with the issues of their day, rather than maintaining some kind of careful aesthetic distance from the ugly events of the mid-twentieth century - among mankind's lowest moments in terms of sheer violence and terror.

Another reason is the way that both of them wrote: in clear, straightforward English, immediately comprehensible to most readers. Take, for example, Auden's 'Refugee Blues', written in 1939 as the true horror of Hitler's policies against the Jews became increasingly undeniable:
... Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
Is it poetry or propaganda? At the time many thought that Auden was crossing a line in talking so directly about the issues of the day - 'poetry' was for things like daffodils, and broken hearts, and learned disquisitions on history. It's a matter of taste, I suppose, but when I read lines like the ones below, I have to say if that isn't poetry, I don't know what is:
Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
All I can say is that as Russian tanks roll again in Europe, and refugees stream west before Putler's armies, it's Auden poems I turn to for a bit of light in the darkness. All of a sudden he seems terrifyingly relevant in a way we probably all hoped he would never be again.

Ukrainian refugees (The Guardian: 5-3-2022)