James Arthur, Winter 2009-10 Contributor

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James Arthur‘s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Shenandoah, and The Southern Review. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Stegner Fellowship, and the Discovery/The Nation Prize, as well as fellowships to Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. He currently lives in St. Louis.

View the Winter ’09-’10 issue here.

After the jump, James writes about the process of composing “On a Line by W. H. Auden,” a poem that appears in the Winter 2009-10 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Tony Hoagland.

On a Line by W. H. Auden

The Auden line that inspired my poem is from The Sea and the Mirror, an Ars Poetica that Auden called a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Chapter I of The Sea and the Mirror, Prospero is packing for a return to Milan. He has just released Ariel, thereby giving up magic forever, and is speaking to Ariel, though also to himself, about the nature of enchantment. As I understand Auden’s poem, Ariel is a muse or an embodiment of poetry itself, and in lines like,


But we have only to learn to sit still and give no orders,
To make you offer us your echo and your mirror;
We have only to believe you, then you dare not lie;
To ask for nothing, and at once from your calm eyes,
With their lucid proof of apprehension and disorder,
All we are not stares back at what we are …

Auden is addressing the pleasures, purpose, and limitations of art. The Sea and the Mirror is full of startling turns of phrase, but I keep thinking about the lines, “thanks to us both, I have broken / Both of the promises I made as an apprentice;– / To hate nothing and to ask nothing for its love.”

It’s with a sense of dread that I think about the emotional
austerity of those two youthful promises. By “nothing,” does Prospero
mean “not anything” or “nothingness”? Does Prospero regret having
broken those promises, or not?