Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar, with all your
brother Anons, how on earth did you ever manage,
without anaesthetics or plumbing,
in daily peril from witches, warlocks,
lepers, The Holy Office, foreign mercenaries
burning as they came, to write so cheerfully,
with no grimaces or self-pathos?
Long-winded you could be but not vulgar,
bawdy but not grubby, your raucous flytings
sheer high-spirited fun, whereas our makers,
beset by every creature comfort,
immune, they believe, to all superstitions,
even at their best are so often morose or
kinky, petrified by their gorgon egos.
We all ask, but I doubt if anyone
can really say why all age-groups should find our
Age quite so repulsive. Without its heartless
engines, though, you could not tenant my book-shelves,
on hand to delect my ear and chuckle
my sad flesh: I would gladly just now be
turning out verses to applaud a thundery
jovial June when the judas-tree is in blossom,
but am forbidden by the knowledge
that you would have wrought them so much better.
I often find myself sharing Auden's surface sentiment here; Why practice art or create when it has been done and done better? While asking that and praising the great talents of those megalithic figures of past creative spirit, Auden writes a clever poem, which, at its end, imitates that very thing he feels he cannot write.
The alliteration at the end of the last stanza (jovial June, judas-tree) hearkens to the wondrous sound of medieval poetry, with its wordplays and fun sounds.
Normally, I find poems lamenting the current "age" to be trifling and stupid, but Auden seems to know better than to assume that he lives at the nadir of human creativity. Rather than lambasting his own time completely, as Blake does (http://poetry-fromthehart.blogspot.com/2011/07/london-william-blake.html), Auden instead marvels at the great works of the past, while still creating a compelling poem of his own. That's a good balance, if you ask me.