Precious Five by W.H. Auden

The poem, Precious Five, was composed by Auden sometimes in 1950. It was first published in Harper’s Magazine the same year. In 1951, it was published in his poetic volume Nones. In the present poem, the poet represents himself as a religious-minded Christian who is ready to adjust himself to the changed conditions of the modern age of reason and science. By “previous five”, he means great powers of the five sense-organs extant in the human body. Our five senses are powers of smelling, seeing, hearing, tasting and receiving a sensation through touching. They lie invested respectively in the nose, the eyes, the ears, the tongue as the organ of taste, and the skin as the organ of touch.

Auden describes them as “precious” that is, rare, extraordinary, powers in the human body. The poet here urges each one of his five bodily senses to perform its function without any useful considerations and lead him to all the blessings of life and being. He does not want to be sensualist. Far from it, he wants to understand the nature of life and the soul by means of the senses employed under the command of his philosophical mind.

The poem, Precious Five, enjoins the five senses, such as; “Be patient… Be modest… Be civil… look straight… Praise… the Earthly Muse… Be Happy”, to serve the Natural Law, and in so doing to concur in the Divine Law, whose singular command is “Bless what there is for being…”  The poem represents the central Auden belief: ‘Life remains a blessing’ or ‘Bless what there for being”. This means that Auden the religious poet approves of all the objects of the senses as holly and happy. The poet’s advice to himself of God: “Bless what there is for being”. Here, the word “Bless” means “pronounce holy or happy’, ‘glorify’ or ‘approve officially’ and ‘being’ means life.

The poem is made up of six stanzas. Each of the first three stanzas is made up of 24 lines. The fourth one consists of 28 lines. The fifth one has twenty-four lines, and the sixth one, only twenty lines. Rhyme has been used here and there.


Precious Five Analysis

First Stanza

Addressing his own sense of smell, the poet urges it to be patient in a society believing in reason, science, materialism, etc. So his sense of smell should not look for fragrant fumes of incense which used to burn in religious places of worship in ancient times. The grave world of religious piety has been changed by achievements of science, technology and scientific attitudes to life and being. So the poet’s nose should discharge the function of a dispassionate power of smell. The poet implies that his sense of smell should detect by smell the nature of the atmosphere, like a scientist, and then report the matter to his mind.


Second Stanza

In the second stanza, the poet advises his own sense of hearing to moderate its power. Its taste has been spoiled by the cheap (loud and fast) music of modern drama and concert. Such music also delights the neurotic, sensuous and sensual, mind of modern man. But the poet’s ears should again put themselves to the school of spiritual music. They should learn its nature and niceties. They should cultivate in themselves the capacity to appreciate the sound-value of a whisper even.

Their estimate of spiritual poetic music should be exact. When they have seen the nature of the poetic music which wakes up the soul, they will be the best judges of Auden’s poetic music. They will allow only the natural diction to go into his poems. They will condemn every word which is fantastic or banal. Yet even if Auden’s ears help him produce a most charming poetry, poetic success is luck which his ears can celebrate but cannot predict.


Third Stanza

In the third stanza, the poet exhorts his own hands (and also the hands of other man) to be civil. When he asks them to be civil he means that they should go up in salvation to others, and do good to others. The palms of man’s hands have fate-lines. They indicate what the man has done in the past, does now (and may do in future). The eyes of the palmist can know the nature of a particular person‘s life by reading his fate lines. Man should therefore revere the Ten Commandments which Moses inscribed on a slab of stone under God’s inspiration. Moses is great in that he demolished the cult of goblins among the Jews and gave them Ten Mosaic laws of moral behaviour.

The arms of Moses were hairy and his legs had been nourished by mutton. Yet his hands have done great good to mankind. As contrasted with his hands, modern man’s hands are bloody and dangerous like the clawed hands of beast. They do not go up in salutation to their brethren as if they were stiff with arthritis. They are heavy with pride as if they were the hands of an aldermanic beast. Yet they wave about as threatening fists. Thus, they  glorify physical force which was considered glorious in ancient times of Homer. Auden then urges modern man to grow into an immortal figure like Moses, by making great things for mankind and doing such good to them as may prove good to the coming generations even.


Fourth Stanza

In the fourth stanza, the poet urges his eyes to look at all people sincerely. They must completely forget that he had been a double-crosser in the past. Thus, if they look at themselves honestly, their nakedness i.e., innocence, simplicity may be lost. His eyes should also watch the eyes of the people with curiosity. They may see different kinds of eyes – shameful, shameless, lifeless, etc. Now and then, they may also see bright eyes. Such eyes  express the nature of man’s heart as it is. But true seeing involves the play of intelligence without which eyes can never prove anything to be true or false. And man has a world to see. The poet then urges his eyes to look at the eyes of all men, and to love the bright eyes which his own eyes cannot be.


Fifth Stanza

In the fifth stanza, the poet urges his tongue to praise the Earthly Muse i.e, the goddess of life = the Soul, in poetry or prose, in any manner whatever. She bestows her favour on all kinds of people – a fish-wife, a queen and others. Her style of living, her ways, her reason and whim – all are worth celebrating. Her revolving wheel of appetite and season, her tendency to love wine, gold – any one of them may be the subject of praise. She has given a twin brother to the tongue. The brother is penis, the external male organ. It hangs “down below the waist”. The tongue is hungry for delicious food while penis is hungry for sexual-pleasure. The poet implies that the tongue may also be pleasures and enjoyments. So the tongue should give her thanks, however confusing its language may be.


Sixth Stanza

In the last sixth stanza, the poet urges all his five senses to be happy so long as he is alive. He implies that he will feed his senses on all kinds of sense pleasures. But he will not be a sensualist. Before satisfying his senses, he will “find reasons…to face the sky.” He means that even when satisfying his senses, he will stay within reasonable limits. And he wants to enjoy every sense object because God has made it so that it may be enjoyed by man. For God’s singular command is: “Bless what there is for being”.

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