It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only
because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.
A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment
the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this – our lack of decorum.
Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.
Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers
about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories, where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.
Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several
with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.
– W. H. Auden
It’s hard to know from this poem how Auden felt about the moon landing. On one hand, he compares Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Homeric heroes and he seems to think that the technical achievement is both inevitable and worthwhile. On the other hand he doesn’t see any inspirational romance or epoch-making significance in the specific act of visiting the moon.
In some ways this poem echoes the anti-science sentiments of people like Keats, as Auden does not want his moon to be reduced to a lump of rock in a mechanical orbit, but I get the feeling that this is more of a personal preference than a fundamental view humanity’s place in the universe.
Perhaps Auden’s problem with the moon landing is not the significance of the event, but how and why it happened. In the first two stanzas and the last one, he takes aim at the ridiculous one-up-manship and chest-thumping machismo of the Cold War space race. Although the human experience for millions of years has been one of technological advancement (‘from the moment / the first flint was flaked this landing was merely / a matter of time’) and exploration (represented for millenia by the heroes of The Odyssey), early space exploration was not carried out for any grand romantic or philosophical ideals or for any economic imperative of survival, but merely for short-term political gain. The USA stopped manned lunar expeditions simply because once they had beaten the Russians the public lost interest.
‘Worth going to see? I can well believe it. / Worth seeing? Mneh!’ reverses Samuel Johnson’s ‘Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see’, which he said of the Giant’s Causeway. In the preface of his Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson wrote: ‘I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.’ His meaning was that a lexicographer’s job is to catalogue the language as it is used, and that the descriptive words are not the same as the actual objects or concepts. Reality doesn’t change, but humans are emotional and subjective, and the languages we use to communicate are mutable.
Science describes the universe and technology allows us to explore it, but it is up to ‘artists, chefs and saints’ (and poets) to tell us what it means to live in it.