Whitsunday in Kirchstetten

Austrian radio once did a program on W. H. Auden’s time in the Lower Austrian village of Kirchstetten, where he used to summer. For anyone who has lived in Niederösterreich, and who also has an interest in Anglo-American literature, there is a wonderful coming-together-of-worlds beauty to it. The same can be said of the poems that he wrote there. A friend of mine lent me a splendid bi-lingual edition of Auden’s Kirchstetten poems (with translations by Johannes Paul). Here is one on Pentecost, recently quoted by Artur Rosman (transcription slightly corrected from here):

Whitsunday in Kirchstetten by W.H. Auden

(for H.A. Reinhold)
Grace dances. I would pipe. Dance ye all.
[Acts of John]
 
Komm Schöpfer Geist I bellow as Herr Beer
picks up our slim offerings and Pfarrer Lustkandl
quietly gets on with the Sacrifice
as Rome does it: outside car-worshippers enact
the ritual exodus from Vienna
their successful cult demands (though reckoning time
by the Jewish week and the Christian year
like their pedestrian fathers). When Mass is over,
although obedient to Canterbury,
I shall be well grüss-gotted, asked to contribute
to Caritas though a metic come home
to lunch on my own land: no doubt, if the Allies had not
conquered the Ost-Mark, if the dollar fell,
the Gemütlichkeit would be less, but when was peace
or its concomitant smile the worse
for being undeserved?
     In the onion-tower overhead
bells clash at the Elevation, calling
on Austria to change: whether the world has improved
is doubtful, but we believe it could
and the divine Tiberius didn’t.  Rejoice, the bells
cry to me.  Blake’s Old Nobodaddy
in his astronomic telescopic heaven,
Army, Navy, Law, Church, nor a Prince
say who is papabile. (The Ape of the Living God
knows how to stage a funeral though,
as penitents like it: Babel, like Sodom, still
has plenty to offer, though of course it draws
a better sort of crowd.)  Rejoice we who were born
congenitally deaf are able
to listen now to rank outsiders.  The Holy Ghost
does not abhor a golfer’s jargon,
a Lower-Austrian accent, the cadences even
of my own little Anglo-American
musico-literary set (though difficult,
saints at least may think in algebra
without sin): but no sacred nonsense can stand Him.
Our magic syllables melt away,
our tribal formulae are laid bare: since this morning,
it is with a vocabulary
made wholesomely profane, open in lexicons
to our foes to translate, that we endeavor
each in his idiom to express the true magnalia
which need no hallowing from us, loaning terms,
exchanging graves and legends. (Maybe, when just now
Kirchstetten prayed for the dead, only I
remembered Franz Joseph the Unfortunate, who danced
once in eighty-six years and never
used the telephone.)
     An altar bell makes a noise
as the Body of the Second Adam
is shown to some of his torturers, forcing them
to visualize absent enemies,
with the same right to grow hybrid corn and be wicked
as an Abendlander. As crows fly,
ninety kilometers from here our habits end,
where minefield and watchtower say NO EXIT
from peace-loving Crimtartary, except for crows
and agents of peace: from Loipersbach
to the Bering Sea not a living stockbroker,
and church attendance is frowned upon
like visiting brothels (but the chess and physics
are still the same).  We shall bury you
and dance at the wake, say her chiefs: that says Reason
is unlikely. But to most people
I’m the wrong color: it could be the looter’s turn
for latrine duty and the flogging block,
my kin who trousered Africa, carried our smell
to germless poles.
     Down a Gothic nave
comes our Pfarrer now, blessing the West with water:
we may go.  There is no Queen’s English
in any context for Geist or Esprit: about
catastrophe or how to behave in one
what do I know, except what everyone knows—
if there when Grace dances, I should dance.

***

The translations by Johannes Paul are surprisingly good, and sometimes make obscure passages clear. Here is how he translates the end of Whitsunday:

Es gibt im Englischen kein Wort für Geist oder Esprit:
Von Katastrophen, und, wie man sich in einer
verhalten soll, weiß ich nur, was jeder weiß:
wenn Gnade tanzt, daß ich dann tanzen sollte.

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