Friday, 13 July 2012

O Tell Me the Truth about Concordats

It’s a little known fact that, shortly after graduating, WH Auden worked in Oxford University’s Research Office. Whilst he was there he had to deal with various strategic policies, concordats and memoranda of understanding. He became increasingly frustrated with these, and vented this irritation in an early draft of one of his most famous poems, ‘O Tell Me the Truth about Love’. In the week in which Universities UK announced its ‘Concordat to Support Research Integrity’, and LERU issued a paper on gender in universities, it’s worth reprinting this forgotten masterpiece.

O Tell Me the Truth about Concordats

Some say concordats show the way
They move the question on.
But others scoff and turn away
And say that they’re all wrong.
And when I asked the bureaucrat 
Who looked as if he knew, 

His boss got very cross indeed, 
And said it wouldn't do.

What are these words, these shiny words,
That trumpet and aspire?
That build imagined pleasure domes
With proselyte desire?
And when you try to pin them down
They flit like darkling bats
And float like smoke above the town
O tell me the truth about concordats.

At meetings they’re referred to
And duly noted down
But all around the table
There’s academic frowns.
They struggle with their purpose,
They struggle with their sense.
They try to take some action
For fear of seeming dense.

Do they shout like manifestos?
Or rattle like shopping lists?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
If one’s somewhat Brahms and Liszt?
Do they whisper in your ear,
Or demand: ‘do this, do that!’
Do they need your full attention?
O tell me the truth about concordats.

I tried to find the meaning
I searched the halls and quads.
And some who saw me whispered:
‘He’s a miserable sod’.
But still I found no answer
The emptiness remained.
These words so drained of meaning
A vacant picture frame.

Do they make a real difference?
Do they change the way we think?
Or are we better at the races,
Or fiddling with string?
Like shadow boxers sparring
Or like Schrodinger’s cat
They’re blithe and insubstantial
O tell me the truth about concordats.

As I’m sleeping in my bedsit
A nightmare tiptoes in:
A giant, laughing concordat
That affirms and agrees and spins.
It towers high above me -
But disappears, just like that -
Leaving no one any wiser
O tell me the truth about concordats.

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