… it’s time to look at a chilled-to-perfection poem. Auden’s Brussels in Winter puts you inside how it feels when the world switches on what Stephen Dedalus, in Portrait, calls the refrigerating apparatus. What the poet describes is already (to him) an unknown world – the city of Brussels – and when this world freezes over, its mystery hardens into absolute darkness. In Brussels in Winter, each charter’d street evaporates, and the desperately lost poet desperately seeks his bearings. Or any bearings.


*********************************

Brussels in Winter

Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
Its formula escapes you; it has lost
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House.

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.

********************************************

Look at how much poetry Auden packs in, how much implication, mood, and philosophy he cooks up in his few abbreviated rhymed lines… Look at his vanful of similes and metaphors as they speed by your eyes…

But slow it down. Take it little by little. See how a poem does what a poem can do.

Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
Its formula escapes you; it has lost
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

There’s an unclarity of agency here. Who is wandering? Not its formula escapes me; its formula escapes you. The poem is written in an insinuating second-person, in which the poet assumes that the condition of existential lostness and self-alienation he’s about to evoke is certainly not his own alone, but is shared by his reader. He assumes that however grounded you may feel at this or that moment, you easily understand – because you’ve experienced it – the eerie d├ępaysement that occurs when you lose the formula of existence, the certainty that constitutes your life on earth as a thing, an object of familiarity and recognition.

As for style: cold streets/old string has the assonance, balance, and the near-rhymey feel that make that odd transition – from streets to tangled string – feel plausible. The linguistic proximity suggests a conceptual kinship.

The stopped flow of the fountains has an abrupt feel to it, instantly (along with the poet’s insinuating you) locating you alongside the poet in the same suddenly arrested cityscape.

And here’s another unclarity: Its. Its formula escapes you. It has lost. We don’t yet know to what it refers, which keeps us in the same confusion as the poet. Gradually it becomes clear that it is Brussels, the city.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House.

Only if you’re trapped in some operatic theater of despair can you keep your bearings here. Frozen into place, you take your background part in a chorus of human misery. The reader hears the plaintive calls of the chorus throughout this stanza, with all its long O‘s and A‘s. It sings.

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

How odd the world is; and to carry that oddness the poet finds odd figures. City apartments look like sudden outcroppings of the natural world – the world of bearings, groundings… Of course the desperate poet sees them in this way, as distant objects of desire – rich ridges, glowing farms. Warm things, glowing with the fire of their unstoppable being, their autonomous radiance as living, meaning-rich things-in-themselves.

And now the poet picks up a bit of language as it passes him on the street. French? Dutch? His effort to recapture his lost sense of existing has him grasping onto it as definitive in significance, if only he can understand it. But it drives on.

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.

Again the poet’s desperation finds the very history of humanity in the expression of a random face… a face also quickly lost in the old, hungry, and humbled winter crowd.

A look contains the history of man, and a body – any random streetwalker’s body – is the embodiment of the shivering city itself. This body carries the frozen city’s pathos, its wispy uncertain half-thereness; and, in the way of humanity, the poet, suffering horribly from his estrangement, comforts himself with the thought that through the streetwalker’s body he can rather cheaply purchase at least a momentary sense of possessing an otherwise tangled and elusive reality.

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