“We, the inconstant ones, / Are consistently homesick” for that landscape made of limestone, the one that dissolves in water. The stone slopes are rounded and smell of thyme, and below them are caverns and conduits and laughing springs, which empty into little pools for fish and chisel out ravines for butterflies and lizards. Here the landscape is of “short distances and definite places.” Such an area is like Mother Earth and her son, she being concerned for him while he arrogantly lounges against a sun-warmed rock, content that he is loved and to bask in “his power to charm.” Here, the son takes only “short steps” from outcrop to temple, from flowing waters to fountains, from wild to formal vineyards, all wishing his small efforts will gain him “more attention than his brothers.”
Consider the “band of rivals” who walk arm-in-arm but not in step, or engaged in friendly and animated conversation in the square. They know each other well enough not to keep secrets, or to act like there is a god who judges them morally or a god who wants more than singing a hymn (“a clever line / Or a good lay”). They were “born lucky” and take their easy city life for granted; they haven’t had to experience jungle or desert. Their eyes have never had to peer through “the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb” to worry about the infinite.
When such a city boy ventures into evil, his mind sees no moral problem. Only “the best and the worst of us” realize what is at stake. The best and worst do not linger in the “mad camp” of the city, but venture to “immoderate soils” where the “granite waste” reminds one of mortality and humility. The clays and gravels of the plains offer room for cultivation and contemplation, since “soft as the earth is mankind and both / Need to be altered”—this is where future Caesars leave the opportunity behind. But the most reckless people hark to the “older colder voice” of the ultimate wilderness, “the oceanic whisper”—promising that the abyss of existence “shall set you free” to understand the wilderness’ reality, that “There is no love; / There are only the various envies, all of them sad.”
The speaker says that such voices have been right then; “this land is not the sweet home that it looks.” They are right to critique “the big busy world” and what “the Great Powers assume.” Similarly, the poet looks at the city’s “marble statues” and, guided by his habit of mirroring reality while puzzling over the human mind, feels dismay over the city’s attempt to create some kind of order while “Nature’s / Remotest aspects” go unobserved.
Despite the darkness of nature, humans desire not losing time, not getting left behind, and not being a predictable animal or a mere piece of nature. If death is a fact, the poet’s analysis is right. But if sins are forgiven and people rise from the dead, human civilization makes an additional point: those who are blessed have “nothing to hide” and can be viewed from any perspective, that of the city or of the wilderness. The speaker says he knows nothing of either, but when he ponders the idea of a “faultless love” or the afterlife, he perceives the wilderness: subterranean springs and “a limestone landscape.”
Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” is one of his most difficult, striking, and rewarding poems. It is often considered one of his best, and it has garnered a great deal of critical attention. It was written in May 1948 after a visit to Italy, a few years after the end of the Second World War. It is written in loose syllabic lines in three long stanzas. The critical consensus about the poem centers on it being inspired by the Mediterranean, although some discussion of its locations representing the human body and soul permeates the discussion.
The critic James Persoon writes that it is about “the beauty of mutable, imperfect human nature,” and critic Anthony Hecht argues that “it presents to us a climate, and, by extension, its characteristic landscape, which corresponds to, or even induces, certain moral qualities of human behavior, personality, or character traits.” The critic Rebecca Price Parkin argues that it does not fall into one particular genre of poetry: “in a very broad, loose way it might be categorized as a topographic-reflective poem.” This critic adds that “the door is open to the unplanned, the unpredictable—life as it is lived.” She also calls attention to the tone of the poem: “intimacy, humility, and tenderness.” She sees it as a lovers’ colloquy, which “both intensifies the emotional impact of the poem and confirms its basic argument.” There is a “relaxed but intimate and knowing contact with reality.” Finally, she writes of the poet’s use of everyday speech reinforcing the informal, friendly tone.
A less flowery reading of the poem, however, suggests a rather different, stark, distressing tension, evolving throughout the poem, between stone-cold nature and human efforts to do something more than live and die. Critics must come to terms with the poem’s lines expressing the “older colder voice, the oceanic whisper” and the speaker’s concluding preference for interpreting the world as the “limestone landscape” of the cold reality of the human wilderness rather than interpreting the world with a blithe, city-boy, Sunday-Christian, afterlife cosmology.
The tension in the first stanza is in how to assess the son: he believes the Mother loves him despite his faults, but does she? Can he, through his little attempts, ultimately get more from Mother Nature than death?
The second stanza takes us to the city, where the same pattern plays out. There is a lot more commotion in the city, but the primary tension is between the blithe, uncaring, amoral lifestyle of the young men who are so taken in by city life that they have paved over the reality of the wilderness, on the one hand, and others who have sought the deeper reality of the wilderness, on the other hand. The city boys have no patience for that; the future Caesars, wanting to bask only in constructed civilization, leave the scene as soon as someone tries to go deeper into human nature to improve mankind. (Here Parkin argues more solemnly, “the same plasticity that is the ground for man’s redemptive hopes makes it possible for a secular Caesar to turn him into a monstrous genocide machine.”)
Then there is the paradox offered to “the really reckless,” those who are willing to cast civilization aside to focus on the reality of the wilderness, by the “older colder voice, the oceanic whisper” of the vast deep. This abyss of mortality, endless natural death, says that it asks nothing and promises nothing, but that recognizing the stark reality of nothingness is what “shall set you free.” (Compare Nietzsche and nihilism.) The blithe amorality of the city boys is quite different from this solemn, “sad” freedom where Mother Nature offers “no love.”
The third stanza opens by claiming that “all those voices were right,” those voices of granite and clay and gravel as well as the oceanic voice, drawing people to acknowledge the cold, that kisses are accidental and death is permanent. The wilderness “disturbs our rights,” everything we have tried to build through civilization to avoid the uncomfortable, unsettling realities of the wilderness. This the poet sees. The poet habitually sees and describes reality, “calling / The sun the sun,” although the reality of the human mind is that it remains a “Puzzle.” The city’s statues represent the rest of civilization trying to hold things fast despite the unfettered freedom of Nature, and the poet “is made uneasy” by civilization’s obvious efforts to ignore Nature’s cold voices.
True enough, the poet is not so sure after all. The mind is a puzzle, and the poet’s view of reality is “antimythological” but still a “myth.” There is something about being human that deeply seeks to matter, to be more than scientific nature or animals of mere habit: to be creative. There might be more to existence than the plain fact that “we have to look forward / To death.” That is, as many believe, “Sins can be forgiven” and “bodies rise from the dead,” an additional possibility about existence which the cold oceanic voice does not know about or reveal.
If there really is such victory over death, one’s particular environment in the world seems irrelevant. If one lives in the wilderness or lives in the city, what matters is living as one of “the blessed.” Living without shame means “having nothing to hide,” regardless of “what angle they are regarded from.”
This hopeful note, however, is quickly undercut. Addressing his fellow humanity as “Dear” for the second time (the first was at the beginning of this final stanza), the speaker claims to “know nothing of Either” angle or either alternative view of the fate of humanity and the soul. He tries out a view of “a faultless love” and “the life to come” after death, but he is not convinced. All he hears and sees are Nature’s underground streams and the “limestone landscape,” the wilderness of a cold reality and the puzzling paths of the mind’s attempt to come to terms with it.
What, then, to make of the seemingly joyful title, “In Praise of Limestone”? The poem seems to offer irony toward civilization but sincerity toward nature. The poem’s praise of limestone is sincere. Limestone represents reality, sad or cold as it may be, but the poet sees sun as sun and death as death and limestone as limestone. The limestone wilderness is where the poet can puzzle over what is most real, and it is where the critically interesting tension arises between cold reality and the creative human mind.