In Praise of Limestone, by W.H. Auden
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle, Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region Of short distances and definite places: What could be more like Mother or a fitter background For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard, Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish To receive more attention than his brothers, whether By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.
Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged On the shady side of a square at midday in Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think There are any important secrets, unable To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral And not to be pacified by a clever line Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds, They have never had to veil their faces in awe Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed; Adjusted to the local needs of valleys Where everything can be touched or reached by walking, Their eyes have never looked into infinite space Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky, Their legs have never encountered the fungi And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common. So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all But the best and the worst of us... That is why, I suppose, The best and worst never stayed here long but sought Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external, The light less public and the meaning of life Something more than a mad camp. 'Come!' cried the granite wastes, "How evasive is your humour, how accidental Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels, "On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper: "I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing; That is how I shall set you free. There is no love; There are only the various envies, all of them sad." They were right, my dear, all those voices were right And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks, Nor its peace the historical calm of a site Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward And dilapidated province, connected To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite: It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself It does not neglect, but calls into question All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet, Admired for his earnest habit of calling The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy By these marble statues which so obviously doubt His antimythological myth; and these gamins, Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught, Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music Which can be made anywhere, is invisible, And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead, These modifications of matter into Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains, Made solely for pleasure, make a further point: The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.Horizon, May 1948
W.H. Auden, "In Praise of Limestone"; more in-depth analysis by John Hildebidle in The Kenyon Review