Shortly after Apollo 11 put men on the moon and brought them safely back to earth, W. H. Auden, widely regarded as the greatest living English poet of the age, wrote a poem about it. It’s called “Moon Landing,” and from start to finish, it’s one long grumble.
Untouched by the sublime romance of the moon mission, Auden’s poem opens:
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
Auden’s prolific career is divided into Early Auden (his years in England) and Later Auden (his American years). “Moon Landing” falls in the latter category. But it works better as a funny, peevish, poignant example of an important subgroup: Grumpy Auden.
After making the lunar landing sound like American football—comically apt, given the balletic lightness of the astronauts’ bulky armor—he goes on to condemn the motives behind this “grand gesture” as “somewhat less than menschlich.” He complains about the pointlessness of it all, demanding, as we seem to still be wondering, fifty years later:
But what does it period?
What does it osse?
Moreover, he shrugs, it was bound to happen:
from the moment the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time.
Yes, it’s a shrug, but what an eloquent shrug, one that evokes with breathtaking economy the epic arc of human progress from man’s first tryst with fire to his bouncing among lunar craters a quarter of a million miles away. In other stanzas, too, admiration surfaces through the cynicism. “Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver than our Trio,” he writes, acknowledging the mythical dimension of their quest—but mostly he’s determined to be aggrieved.
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.
Nothing in this poem is more petty, more comically wounding than that childish “Menh!” Untouched by the moon’s “lonely beauty”—to quote the otherwise unlyrical Neil Armstrong—Auden quotes instead his hero Dr. Johnson, who, when asked whether or not the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland was worth seeing, responded: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.” Auden perversely inverts the quote.
And yet it is striking that he compares, even if indirectly, the cratered moonscape to the Giant Causeway, another geological wonder comprising a vast volcanic expanse of thousands of interlocking hexagonal basalt columns. The invocation of that honeycombed wasteland, however backhanded, reminds us that even when he is being obstinately contrarian, Auden can illuminate a subject in ways few others can.
After dissing the whole enterprise and predicting that no good will come of it, Auden tells us that for him, his moon will remain her virginal self. Unsoiled by big fat boots and human hubris, she will continue to grace his Austrian cottage in the village of Kirchstetten. The poem ends:
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.
“Moon Landing” is not considered to be one of Auden’s better poems; it is set aside as trite and artificial. And yet it is one of my favorites because it is so quintessentially Auden, showcasing his literary tics and touchstones. From the fond nursery description of the “Old Man” in the moon, which harks back to his beloved English boyhood, to his pedantic use of an obscure dictionary word (osse); from the gleeful use of yiddish (menschlich) that he had no doubt picked up from his Jewish lover Chester Kallman, and the ritual nods to his heroes, Homer and Johnson; from his pointed mention of his hatred of fascism (“von Brauns and their ilk” refers to the Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun) and the loving, if prosy, ode to his cottage at Kirchstetten, “Moon Landing” reads like a potted biography of Auden’s life. It is a joy to watch Auden recite it from memory in this video, sitting serenely in a faded old suit, his large face as lined and remote as the moon.
The other reason I like this poem is that Auden’s peevishness comes as a surprise. Auden was scarcely antiscience. On the contrary, this son of a doctor grew up fascinated by mines, machinery, and microbes, often stating how grateful he was that he had grown up in a home where science and religion flourished in harmony. He grew up listening to his father tell him stories of Norse myths and the great Nordic explorers. He was inordinately proud of his Scandinavian heritage and deeply drawn to Iceland. One would think he would have been enthralled by the moon mission.
But he wasn’t. To him the act was hubristic, an irreverent invasion of his “Mother, Virgin, Muse,” as he addressed the moon in an earlier poem. In another poem, “This Lunar Beauty,” he hailed the moon as an entity that “Has no history.” Now it had a flag on it and had been exploited for television. Perhaps one can put his hostility down to his general mood at the time. In 1969, Auden was sixty-two years old, which is not old at all, but his reliance on Benzedrine had gone up, his drinking had become heavier, he had begun to feel terribly lonely, and had got into the habit of repeating his witticisms—among them, “The moon is a desert. I have seen deserts.” The grim new frontier Auden was contemplating was not the moon, but death. With Chester spending more and more time in Europe, Auden was afraid of the prospect of dying alone in his squalid New York apartment and lying undiscovered for days. In a poem he wrote at about this same time, he described himself as, “An American? No, a New Yorker who opens his Times at the obit page.”
Because perhaps that’s what the moon landing stirs in all of us: a reminder of how small we all are, and how mortal.
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist who writes on literature, history, and food.