BF. William Empson

7. AUBADE. Life and Letters 17 (Winter 1937): 68-69.

  An abridged version appears in Collected Poems.  

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western imaginative writing about Japan often focused on the desertion of a Japanese woman by a foreign man—Chrysanthéme and Butterfly are but two well-known examples of a recurring theme—but here the subject is turned on its head. The speaker and a Japanese woman are awakened in the hours before dawn by an earthquake, and she flees lest the man sleeping in her own home wake, ‘bawl’ for her, and ‘finding her not in earshot’ know of her relation with the foreign man (though the speaker puns that this excuse might provide ‘some solid ground for lying’). Miner (A25) concludes that the Japanese woman is married, but Gardner and Gardner’s note that ‘in earshot’ suggests ‘not . . . a husband but . . . a father’ (27) seems more accurate. In any case, the foreign speaker asks the woman to stay but she will not, and his reflections following her parting indicate both his sadness at losing her and his realisation that the loss is inevitable given the historical landscape of contemporary Japan, which mitigates against such an affair. Two refrains, ‘it seemed the best thing to be up and go’ and ‘the heart of standing is you cannot fly’ pertain equally to the immediate situation of the earthquake, in which conventional Japanese wisdom is that one should get outside, and to the end of the relationship itself. A leap at stanza seven from the personal story to the turmoil of world affairs turns the loss of the woman into a metaphor for larger losses, and allies her flight from the speaker with his own earlier flight from the ‘gathering storm’ of Europe:

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

The poem is better known in the later version printed in The Gathering Storm (9) and Collected Poems (14), but eight lines that appear here but not in the later version indicate that the relationship was more than passing fancy. The speaker notes that the lines of the poem are ‘unjust to [the woman] without a prose book’ for‘a lyric from a fact is bound to cook’. Both the relationship and the leave-taking

was more grinding [than the poem allows]; it was much more slow,
But still the point’s not how much time it took,
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
I do not know what forces made it die.
With what black life it may yet work below.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Empson told Christopher Ricks in 1963 (in 20) that the poem had its origin in his experience in Japan at a time when ‘it was usual for the old hand in the English colony to warn the young man: don’t you go and marry a Japanese because we’re going to be at war with Japan within ten years’. Empson’s note says that ‘the same war’ (l. 31) refers to the Manchurian Incident. He notes to Ricks that the poem ‘was written in Tokyo during the Manchurian Incident, probably in 1933’. Empson reads the poem in 18.





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