‘In Praise of Limestone’ by W. H. Auden first appeared in his collection “Horizon” in 1948. It reappeared in the volume entitled “Nones” in 1962. The poem is the best example of Auden’s use of casual style and technique of working on various moods and feelings around the theme. It is kind of a philosophical poem of life. It elaborates on the existence of human life with nature.
Explore In Praise of Limestone
‘In Praise of Limestone’ is a depiction of human growth and bond with limestone panorama. It specializes in a reasonable atmosphere for stability in this world. Auden explicitly presents the intense natures of human beings through the intense climates of the world. Through the images and metaphor, the poet correlates the inconsistency of limestone to the inconsistency of human. The limestone dissolves in water, for it has not a flexible nature, similarly, humans who are not flexible will be forgotten in history. The poet touches upon the humans being immortal, imperfect, and faithless to one another. The poet alludes to the statues and sculptures of humble saints and warriors/kings, who had a remarkable life. He concludes the poem with the note that one doesn’t need to change places but they can adapt to the situation that prevails.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
‘In Praise of Limestone’ is a poem in freestyle. The 93 lines in the poem are divided into three stanzas of varying length. In the first stanza, he draws a connection between the landscape and the people living there. It comments on how they influence each other. The second stanza depicts the poet’s criticism of the modern age, where the people have gone far from their spirituality. In the third stanza, the poet gives a panoramic view of the Western historical past, from antiquity to the Post-Christianity period. There is no set rhyme scheme in the poem.
The main theme of ‘In Praise of Limestone’ focuses on the inter-connectedness of people and their landscapes. The poem seems to express the poet’s sincerity toward nature. At the same time, it presents an irony of human civilization. The poem also explores the dissatisfaction of human life that always looks for better.
‘In Praise of Limestone’ gives the picture of the limestone country, influenced by his recent visit to central Italy. The poet also uses the “water imagery” which denotes how essential water is to life. And the limestone encounter with the water revels on the uncertainty of human life. The water image also marks the continuity of life. He presents the visual of an adamant child when he describes the nature of the people in the lines “To receive more attention than his brothers, whether/ By pleasing or teasing.” The imagery present in the third stanza “…cried the granite wastes,” and “…purred the clays and gravels” seem to invite man back to his life with nature.
The Limestone symbolism is repeated throughout the poem. Nature of the limestone, its quality to be eroded by water is associated with life. The poet conveys through this the inevitable truth of life and death. Like the limestone that shapes itself for the purpose of existence, the poet wants human beings to have a life of self-shaping than being left to be shaped by others or the situation. The “Limestone landscape” on the whole symbolizes close connection between human life and nature, in the transformation process.
Poetic and Literary Techniques
The poet uses a number of poetic/literary techniques in the poem. The poet has employed a simple language or diction in the poem. This simplicity helps to understand the poem easily. The tone used by the poet is also intimate and conversational rather than an argument. This causal speech and tone seem effective to bring forth the poet’s intended idea. Yet understanding the poet’s intentions expressed through the images and metaphors are mandatory to understand the poet’s irony present in the poem.
In a sense, the poem could be considered as a poem of extended metaphor. For the inconsistency of the limestone is used as a metaphor to clarify the inconsistency of human and its relationships, that dissolves as the limestone dissolves in water. It explores the idea through the panoramic view of Western historical past, from ancient times to the present. The poet address the life lived by the people of limestone country (England) as “mad camp.” The imagery present here of the granite wastes and the clays and gravels calling seem to invite man back to his life with nature. There he uses “anthropomorphism,” stylistic device to create a stream in imagery, where, “granite wastes” cry like a human being. In the following lines, the poet employed “Zoomorphism” where the animal qualities given to clays and gravels “purred the clays and gravels”.
Analysis of In Praise of Limestone
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
( . . . )
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.
The poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’ begins with the poet drawing the connection between the inconstant nature of the limestone and the people. The poet uses “we” to give a more personal touch between the landscape, the audience, and himself. They change according to the demands of their convenience as the limestone dissolves in the water. It looks like everyone in the limestone country has their landscape. The spring, here, sounds like nature’s chuckle. As it springs, it fills “a private pool for its fish” and carves the “ravine whose cliffs entertain the butterfly and the lizard.” The world of the people living in this area seems to be confined, as nature takes care of them like a “Mother” and provides them all that they require.
The poet gives a religious connotation here, for the “son” the residents are loved despite their faults. The limited and selfish world of the limestone people is the poet’s criticism of people who prefer better things for themselves without caring for fellow human beings. The people are compared to a child that wishes to have more attention than his brothers either by “pleasing or teasing.”
Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
( . . . )
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.”
In the second stanza of ‘In Praise of Limestone’ Auden refers to the twentieth-century dilemma. The people are like the “band of rivals” they move around in twos or threes in the square of the city and under the shade of a tree. Since they are rivals, they talk at ease because they are far too transparent to keep secrets from one another. They are even unable to imagine a God, who could be easily pacified “by a clever line or a good lay.” The poet here comments on the waning religious belief among the people of the modern age.
The people of limestone country being accustomed to it, they have never experienced the true extremities of nature or the nature of God. In other words, he talks of the materialistic world of the people who failed to notice the existence of the innocent ones around them. In the concluding part of the stanza, Auden creates two landscapes. The one is of “limestone” which is smooth, hospitable, and accommodating, the second is the country of “Granite” and “Clay” which is tough, unchangeable, and hostile. It highlights that folks following the developments of the world, become materialistic. Poet says that individuals who wish to escape reality must be careful in choosing the refuge, as one chooses the best climate to dwell in.
They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
( . . . )
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
In the stanza three of ‘In Praise of Limestone’ Auden goes on to explore how nothing seems to be permanent despite “its peace the historical calm of a site”. As those voices, maybe the historians, said the so-called best and the worst did not like to stay in the land of the limestone forever. They also explored other regions, for their province is connected to the busy world outside “A backward and dilapidated province, connected to the big busy world by a tunnel.”
The landscape seems to question the realistic mythological stand of the poet. In fact, the worshippers of the statues doubted whatever he said. Even, the “gamins” criticized his “concern for Nature’s remotest aspects” for they were pursuing the science. Like the philosophers, the voices of the poet, mentioned in the beginning too was criticized. Thus, he says that he doesn’t want to be left behind and lose identity like those voices not being recognized.
The poet states further that he doesn’t want to be like “the beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water/Or stone whose conduct can be predicted.” He openly comments on the faults and ugliness of human life. He also alludes to the Day of Judgment. If all those sins are forgiven and the dead rises, he imagines that the land would look like that of athletes and speakers. While concluding the poet speaks of the Limestone Landscape which alters according to its contact with the water. In the same way, he wants people to accept reality, and live accordingly.
W. H. Auden is better known for his simple poems that unravels the loopholes in the socio-political system of his time. His poems often reveal the irony of life and his anxiety about the 20th-century political system. The following poems “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “September 1, 1939,” “On the Circuit,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “If I Could Tell You” better reveal his themes.