W.H. Auden's 'Runner'
By The Running Muse, Jun 25 2015 08:55PM
'The camera's eye does not lie,
but it cannot tell the life within,
the life of a runner.'
These words form part of the commentary for a 1962 short film (which you can see below) by the National Film Board of Canada. 'Runner' is about a young track star, Bruce Kidd, and is unusually poetic for a documentary, you might think, until you spot that the script commissioned for the narration, which is mostly in verse, has actually been written by the celebrated English poet, W.H. Auden.
The film has a groovy jazz score not unlike the film soundtrack to 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', released in the same year, but the narration, which is not by Auden, seems rather stilted today. Some reviewers enjoyed its laconic feel, though, and the jazz mood is certainly enhanced by the runner in the cool trilby hat at club training!
Auden wrote in many different styles on an enormous range of subjects, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who, while still at school, could act the parts of both Katherine, the witty, feisty object of desire in 'The Taming of the Shrew', and Caliban, the subhuman son-of-a-witch in 'The Tempest', surely a unique combination of Shakespearean roles.
He would go on to write three plays with Christopher Isherwood (below right, with Auden), one of which contains the original version of his famous 'Stop all the clocks', which became more widely known after its inclusion in the 1994 film, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.
That Protean quality extended to his critical caprice. He claimed never to have experienced any kind of physical sensation or sentiment when reading poetry, yet he lambasted the poet and critic A.E. Housman for his scholarly reticence ('deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust, kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer....'), despite Housman stating in his only lecture that the sine qua non of poetry is emotional engagement.
It is thus ironic that, in a recent anthology* that asked 100 prominent male figures which poems made them cry, Auden was the most popular author, with five men nominating works by him. One of those men was actor Simon Callow, who nominated 'Lullaby', not 'Funeral Blues' (the true title of 'Stop all the clocks'), even though the latter had become what he calls 'my personal epitaph' because it was used in the eulogy at his character's funeral in the film that brought Auden's lines to a new worldwide audience.
We will be returning to Housman in a later post, but for now I'll just intrigue you by saying that the author of 'To an Athlete Dying Young' actually tried to commit suicide......by running!
Auden's verse script for 'Runner' made its way into his Collected Poems. As Roger Robinson has noted, the last nine lines of the poem were to be recycled when Auden collaborated with famed cellist Pablo Casals in composing a United Nations hymn in 1971.
Auden spoke about how generous Casals had been towards his occasional suggestions that the composer had placed musical emphasis on the wrong syllable, perhaps because of the metrical demands of the poem's rhythm, but maybe simply because English was not Casal's first language.
In grafting the final verse from 'Runner' on to this anthem, Auden turns the vitality and aspirational qualities of a runner into a United Nations' vision of global harmony by addressing the fulfilling of potential (what James Joyce liked to call 'entelechy'):
'......making the flowing of Time a growing,
till what it could be
at last it is,
where Fate is Freedom, Grace and Surprise.'
Auden worked with many other modern classical composers, including Benjamin Britten (below right, with Auden), Hans Werner Henze and Igor Stravinsky, for whom he wrote the opera libretto for The Rake's Progress. He also wrote lyrics for cabaret songs in Berlin and made propaganda broadcasts for the Republicans in Spain during the civil war there.
His documentary work with the General Post Office film unit included a poem for its famous 1936 'Night Mail' short, now considered a classic of its genre. Written to Britten's music and spoken to the rhythmic knocking of the train's wheels passing over the rail joints at varying speeds, the lines of verse were composed by Auden using a stopwatch in order to synchronise with the film.
In fact, Auden's output seems to be full of timepieces and references to time passing, in 'As I Walked Out One Evening', for instance, where
'...all the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you, you cannot conquer Time."
I am reminded here of the Chariots of Fire scene in which the runners attempt to complete a run around a courtyard while the clock is still striking twelve. By the end of this poem too, the chiming has ceased, but 'the deep river ran on' through the city.
In one sense, the camera does indeed conquer time, but it is not only the camera that 'does not lie' in 'Runner': 'The cold stopwatch tells the truth', says the narrator, who goes on to portray running 'round an endless track' as an example of creaturely movement which
'delights the eye by its symmetry
as it changes places,
blessing the unchangeable absolute rest
of the space all share.'
The poem's opening lines about the camera not being able to capture the inner life of a runner led me to hope that this would now be illuminated instead by a few piercing poetic insights, but they are nowhere to be found in the subsequent verse (at least not here - fortunately there are plenty of writers and poets, often runners themselves, who have understoood and articulated it better, many of whom will be featuring here soon.)
Bruce Kidd, by the way, had a running gait that was anything but symmetrical, although the eccentric arm-swing you can see in this film somehow propelled him to a gold medal in the Six Miles event at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.
He is still enjoying a glittering academic career and is the author of many books about the politics of sport, which somewhat belies the lines in the poem about excellence: 'to one is assigned a ready wit, to another swiftness of eye or foot.' While most of us have neither, Kidd plainly had both.
One of Auden's lines in this film has given me special comfort: 'Fate forbids mortals to be at their best always'. So now I can scrub all my usual post-race excuses and just point to my three Greek friends, the Fates (me being a Muse n' all) - the spinner, the measurer and the cutter of the thread of life, of the course of events and of our allotted Time**.
It is they who stop my stopwatch, the race clock, even my body clock......indeed, they stop all the clocks, and the camera. It's all their fault, and neither my race photographs nor my chip time can be blamed on me.
Unless they're good.
* Poems that make Grown Men Cry' (2014), ed. Anthony and Ben Holden, Simon and Schuster
** The three Fates of Greek mythology were Clotho, the spinner of the thread (hence the word 'cloth'), Lachesis the measurer, and Atropos the cutter. It is ironic that the modern drug atropine is often used in cardiac resuscitation to extend life - the drug derives from atropa belladonna, the poisonous deadly nightshade plant, and the Greek 'atropos' means 'not to be turned away', i.e., this is where things stop. As atropine courses through a patient in cardiac arrest, it is a pharmacological reminder to the heart to pick up the pace and remember the old Nike running mantra: 'There is no finish line'.
The Middle English word for fate, by the way, was 'wyrd', hence 'weird', after the three supernatural fates of German mythology, the 'weird sisters' who controlled destiny (as in Shakespeare's drama, 'Macbeth', for instance).
Interesting, informed and informative. Enjoyed as I love athletics (track & field) and good writing.
Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?
Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.
Comedians have laughed at it, scientists have analysed it, and historians have chronicled its cultural resonance. The Running Muse will be nourishing your runner's soul with stories from all of them.
Even the sweatiest of ancient Greek gyms were also places of intellectual endeavour, so welcome to a new blog for the thinking runner, a miscellany of musings on running in culture that will be navigating the existential wonders of putting one foot in front of the other.
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Running in Language (Part 1)
Running in Language (Part 2)
Dictating the Pace
Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms
Five Unlikely Runners
Runner, I married him
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Jokers in the Pack
Running through Hell
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Picasso's running minotaur
W.H. Auden's 'Runner'
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