Comments on After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

Comments on After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics (Auden, 1961).      BY TUUR GHYS

While the title might seem a little unusual, it is certainly true: Auden did read a child’s guide to modern physics before writing this poem, or at least the poem strongly suggests so. It contains very specific physicist terms, some of which might have been new at that time. He talks about a wide variation of domains within physics, who are normally only found together in a summary like a child’s guide.

He uses a fairly lose rhyme scheme, creating space for content and facilitating him to actually make a point. To me the poem makes two direct points. The first point, explained in the first part, is that the physical ‘truth’ might be impressive, but we should not be intimidated by it, for “We have a better time”. He compares us (as conscious humans) to both greater phenomena outside our reach (Nebulae) and the smallest phenomena inside us (atoms).

He illustrates this in the next three parts, resulting in a rhetorical repetition of his point. Moving from romance in the first to the exploded myth of geocentric view in the third, he manages to comfort the reader not to be intimidated, but the whole is never too comforting. Life is too hard (“Marriage is rarely bliss”) for that, and we humans are too fragile and unable to feel ‘at home a-straddle an ever expanding saddle”.  Still, physical phenomena are worse off.

    The second and main point he makes in the fifth and sixth part is asking aloud “what we wanted this knowledge for”. This seems to echo the old romantic critique on science that man can try to unravel nature but should do so in a mindful way. If we don’t know what we want this knowledge for, this knowledge might demystify (of wat ook de vertaling voor ‘onttoveren’ mag zijn) and hollow our world, or have more dangerous consequences. In the last part Auden wonders (and hopes) if mankind will deal with knowledge in a wise way once chosen to obtain is, leaving this question open to be answered in the future: “is something we shall learn”.    

   When we take the poem as a whole, I think there is also a third element or meaning to it. Auden seems to go against, or at least questions, the Platonic connection between the truth / good / best, etc. He starts with ‘About the truth be true’, but then quickly disconnects truth from pleasure/feeling good. Lather he also makes the distinction between truth and wisdom, between what is true and what is feasible. As a final guess, I expect this theme to return the other poems we will read.

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