Saturday 14 August 2010

Auden and Schwarzenegger: The Hunter Becomes the Hunted!

A plunderer is somebody who takes plunder. Words are often their own victims, and perforce prey on themselves like monsters of the deep. Once such word is prey.

Once upon a toga-clad time, you prehended things, meaning that you got them: hence apprehend, comprehend and reprehensiblePr(a)ehend then turned into Latin praeda, meaning something that was got, usually plunder. From praeda, via French, we got prey.

From praeda too, the Romans got praedari, meaning to plunder, and from that the English got predation, and from that you got predatory and then finally, in 1908*, you got predator.

And thus the hunter is, etymologically, also the hunted. And thus we are off to the jungles of South America and a crack team of special forces running for their lives and pondering their political careers (two of the actors later became state governors and a third ran unsuccessfully for the governorship of Kentucky).

Anyway, watching Predator I am always reminded of Auden's revisions of his own poetry. It's hard to say what the greatest line in the film is, but one of them is:

There's something out there waiting for us, and it ain't no man. We're all going to die.

Auden once wrote a poem called September 1st 1939 (scholars aren't sure when). It climaxes with this stanza:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street 
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky: 
There is no such thing as the State 
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

He then decided that that last line didn't work. We die anyway, whether we love or not. All men are mortal (and most women). So he changed it to "We must love one another and die." But that hardly means anything. You might as well say "We must remember to feed the cat and die". He therefore decided to scrap the whole poem. He suppressed it. It is therefore still omitted from many, many editions of Auden's complete poetry, much to the bewilderment of readers.

The same, of course, applies to "There's something out there waiting for us, and it ain't no man. We're all going to die." Well, of course you're all going to die: all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.

That, I think, concludes our week of eighties action movies. I simply can't work out why Rambo is named after a French poet and it's not that interesting that commando was first used in English by Winston Churchill. The old action stars are gone. The golden age has turned to bronze. The stars have gone out one by one (or been cast in The Expendables) and now, as Auden said of Arnold in the same poem:

...helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game: 
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

Whatever is out there, it killed Hopper, and now it wants us.

*There is a lone citation from 1581, but it seems to have been a Latin pun and didn't catch on.


  1. Oo.

    He capitalizes "State," "Just" at the end, etc. - I think I would have capitalized "Die" and left it at that. He sounds like a mystic in that poem.. Just at first glance, I don't think I'd have any issues reading it in the sense of a spiritual, capital D, Death on earth rather than the little d, inevitable mortality, under the ground death. Hrm.

    That's so interesting about "prey!"
    (I love it when the use of a symbol seems to have gone round in a circle! Like cypress trees! Evergreens, associated first with eternal life.. Pericles mentions that the remains of the fallen heroes will be borne in cypress coffins (one for each clan) in his funeral oration.. Cypress boughs decorate the homes of the socially prominent deceased in way-back-when Rome.. Shakespeare uses the "sad cypress".. We know it as the "funereal cypress," symbolizing life and death, and life in death at once! So cool! End of!)

  2. Ashley,
    Unfortunately I only have my Complete Auden to hand, which doesn't include that poem (my Selected which does is somewhere in the North). Therefore I can't be sure of the capitals as I had to pull it off the Internet and rely on somebody else's transcription. It may well be correct, though.

    Re Cypresses, I just thought of another post; so thank you.

  3. Oh good, I'm glad that was useful for something! Ha
    : )

  4. Bravo Dogberry! I've enjoyed these articles about 137 times more than the actual movies (which I'm not sure says a great deal...). Keep up the good work!!!

  5. The Antipodean, a bit spun out,15 August 2010 at 07:45

    Wait a minute, so comprehend is an old way of saying 'I get it' or 'I really get it', (if we stretch the 'com' a bit it could be 'get with') and capiche also means to 'get' something, but they come from different words meaning take or seize ... so when we talk about being taken with or seized by an idea, we could say it the other way around.

    We hunt meaning - words preying on themselves indeed.