W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973) was an Anglo-American poet, best known for poems such as “Funeral Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “The Age of Anxiety,” and “For the Time Being” and “Horae Canonicae.” I have written previously about his poetry in my post, W. H. Auden’s: We Must Love One Another or Die. Recently a reader made me aware of another Auden poem, “The Labyrinth.” Here is this profound poem with some explanation and commentary at the end, so as not to break up the rhythm of the poem. (Anthropos apteros means wingless man.)
Anthropos apteros for days
Walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon
His temperment for getting on.
The hundredth time he sighted, though,
A bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed,
And recognized that he was lost.
“Where am I?” Metaphysics says
No question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can
Assume this maze has got a plan.
If theologians are correct,
A Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I’m sure,
The Universe in minature.
Are data from the world of Sense,
In that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know
Can give directions how to go?
All Mathematics would suggest
A steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately
Is consonant with History.
Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these,
Must I, then, go which way I please?
Such reasoning is only true
If we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert,
According to the Introvert.
His absolute pre-supposition
Is – Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built,
But is secreted by my guilt.
The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.
My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I’m only lost until I see
I’m lost because I want to be.
If this should fail, perhaps I should,
As certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.
All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man.”
Anthropos apteros, perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd.
Stanza 1-2 [Anthopos apteros, literally “wingless man,” describes our earth-bound ignorance—we are lost within the maze of life. In the first stanza wingless man seems happy, but by the second stanza he realizes that he is existentially lost. This begins his philosophical turn.]
Stanza 3-4 [Some philosophers suggest that it all makes sense; theologians seem sure it does.]
Stanza 4-7 [Science provides truth but not values; mathematics gives certainty but life does not; art gratifies but is subjective; so can I create my own answers?]
Stanza 8-9 [It seems that answers elude us; perhaps we are the problem; we are still lost.]
Stanza 10-11 [The answer, that we must accept our uncertainty, was within us all along. By accepting being lost, we find ourselves and we find peace.]
Stanza 12-13 [In the end we are still lost; and we cannot know the truth.]
Stanza 14 [We wish we had wings and could see things from a bird’s-eye view; we wish we knew more and could quell our doubts. Perhaps if we were different kinds of creatures we could.]
Disclaimer – When I took a modern poetry class as an undergraduate I quickly learned that poems are susceptible to interpretation. I learned that to one person, “stopping by the woods on a snowy evening,” was to another a poem about suicide or sex. So I don’t offer the above as a definitive interpretation.