Sonnets from China XV
by W.H. Auden
As evening fell the day’s oppression lifted;
Tall peaks came into focus; it had rained:
Across wide lawns and cultured flowers drifted
The conversation of the highly trained.
Thin gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes;
A chauffeur waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views:
It looked a picture of the way to live.
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping and its towns in terror.
Auden wrote this sonnet in 1938. When I first read it, in 1973, it was the time of the Vietnam War, and it seemed perfectly fitting to that conflict. Now that I have spent months teaching World War I and II, and while we remain embroiled in far-away wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this poem seems more powerful than ever.