Horae Canonicae – Sext

W.H. Auden


You need not see what someone is doingto know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,that eye-on-the-object look.

To ignore the appetitive goddesses,to desert the formidable shrines

of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,to pray instead to St. Phocas,

St Barbara, San Saturnino,or whoever one’s patron is,

that one may be worthy of their mystery,what a prodigious step to have taken.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flintswho forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shellsto remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?Feral still, un-housetrained, still

wandering through forests withouta consonant to our names,

slaves of Dame Kind, lackingall notion of a city

and, at this noon, for this death,there would be no agents.


You need not hear what orders he is givingto know if someone has authority,

you have only to watch his mouth:when a besieging general sees

a city wall breached by his troops,when a bacteriologist

realizes in a flash what was wrongwith his hypothesis when,

from a glance at the jury, the prosecutorknows the defendant will hang,

their lips and the lines around themrelax, assuming an expression

not of simple pleasure at gettingtheir own sweet way but of satisfaction

at being right, an incarnationof Fortitudo, Justicia, Nous.

You may not like them much(Who does?) but we owe them

basilicas, divas,dictionaries, pastoral verse,

the courtesies of the city:without these judicial mouths

(which belong for the most partto very great scoundrels)

how squalid existence would be,tethered for life to some hut village,

afraid of the local snakeor the local ford demon

speaking the local patoisof some three hundred words

(think of the family squabbles and thepoison-pens, think of the inbreeding)

at this noon, there would be no authorityto command this death.


Anywhere you like, somewhereon broad-chested life-giving Earth,

anywhere between her thirstlandsand undrinkable Ocean,

the crowd stands perfectly still,its eyes (which seem one) and its mouths

(which seem infinitely many)expressionless, perfectly blank.

The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)a boxing match, a train wreck,

a battleship being launched,does not wonder (as everyone wonders)

who will win, what flag she will fly,how many will be burned alive,

is never distracted(as everyone is always distracted)

by a barking dog, a smell of fish,a mosquito on a bald head:

the crowd sees only one thing(which only the crowd can see)

an epiphany of thatwhich does whatever is done.

Whatever god a person believes in,in whatever way he believes,

(no two are exactly alike)as one of the crowd he believes

and only believes in thatin which there is only one way of believing.

Few people accept each other and mostwill never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowdis the only thing all men can do.

Only because of that can we sayall men are our brothers,

superior, because of that,to the social exoskeletons: When

have they ever ignored their queens,for one second stopped work

on their provincial cities, to worshipThe Prince of this world like us,

at this noon, on this hill,in the occasion of this dying.

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