The process allows them to be what they are; outside it, they are uncertain of their being.
W.H. Auden’s poem “First Things First” presents an individual’s encounter with nature, sound, and language. This encounter, like a storm, is active. The speaker is in the midst of an indefinite engagement that confuses the border between past and present, sleep and wakefulness, and the real and the imaginary. Internal to and underlying this experience are themes of love, language, religion, and solitude. The speaker is in the act of processing these themes, quietly developing the definite and declarative statement the poem concludes with. The engagement between the speaker and the storm and the progression enacted by the poem suggest a reordering, placing “First Things First.” This “first thing” is the importance of process; the poem values the act over what unfolds out of it. To exhibit how this is achieved, I begin by considering the poem’s form. Then I examine where the poem starts and ends, revealing how it moves, simultaneously reflecting on the transitions undergone and the thematic spaces the poem creates. Lastly, I explore the poem’s central process to show how my preceding arguments reveal the elements that compose and characterize this process.
“First Things First” is arranged in five stanzas, six lines each. Every stanza is one sentence with a period punctuating the final line of each stanza. They act as individual units, and their visual similarity suggests continuity from one stanza to the next. The stanzaic form does not allude to alternations, shifts, or boundaries. Moreover, the poem does not include any end rhymes. This absence of change or action at the poem’s borders points toward an internal activity and movement that occurs below the surface of its formal elements.
The first example of interiority is the internal rhymes and echoing sounds that course through the poem; the opening three lines explicitly initiate this: “Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened / To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark / Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober” [emphasis added].
The poem maintains this internal gesture with phrases like “As harshness and clumsiness would allow” and “So once, so valuable, so very now.” Lines like “Scarcely the tongue I should have chosen” abound in assonance and alliteration, while words like “Construing” and “reconstructed” echo each other stanzas apart. Rather than emphasizing its rhythms through end rhymes or a fixed rhyme scheme, the poem understates its musicality by containing it within its lines and words, leaving it variable. These internal rhythms and echoes point out the poem’s progression as an underlying one and foreshadow the poem’s silent and subliminal activity I return to later.
This underlying progression is mediated by a change: a development and shift that moves from indefinite to definite. The first stanza acts as a microcosm of this movement:
Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened
To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark
Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober,
Set to work to unscramble that interjectory uproar,
Construing its airy vowels and watery consonants
Into a love-speech indicative of a Proper Name.
This stanza begins with the lively and chaotic sounds of a storm. The speaker, by listening, actively works to “unscramble,” separating the sounds of the “interjectory uproar” into “airy vowels and watery consonants.” The speaker is processing a storming wall of sound into speech, into language. This stanza construes orderless sounds into systematic and patterned sounds of language. Moreover, sound moves from an indefinite “uproar” to maybe the most definite part of speech, a “Proper Name,” a tool that separates being into different beings; it takes a reality without clear boundaries and divides it. There is a shift from sound to language, chaos to order, the indefinite to definite, yet continuity since language develops out of and is made of sound.
This shift from indefinite to definite and continuity between two alternative states of sound map onto the poem as a whole when looking toward the semantic difference and structural similarity of the first three words in the first and last stanzas: “Woken, I lay,” “Grateful, I slept.” The speaker changes from a purely physical state, awake and lying down, to an emotional state of gratitude while having slept and awoken again. Between these two phrases, the speaker’s circumstances have changed. An experience occurred that made the speaker “Grateful.” In contrast, there is continuity; the speaker maintains the same phrasal structure they began with, in the same way that the title begins and ends with the word “First.” Moreover, the speaker returns to the position they started in, awake and lying in bed, yet a shift has occurred in sentiment. Thus, something has happened in the space between to cause this shift.
In the background of and associated with this shift is a turn from the first stanza’s “winter dark” to the last stanza’s “morning,” as well as a transition from the sounding storm and its “uproar” to the calm “morning that would not say,” that would not sound, and is acting “quietly.” These transitions reinforce the shift noted above, emphasizing that the environment and the speaker change in tandem. Moreover, the transitions are characterized by silence; they happen without clear boundaries. The reader does not know where the speaker falls asleep again after being “Woken” and thus cannot differentiate between real and imaginary experiences. Nor does the reader know when the storm ceases or when morning arrives. The reader knows these moves occurred, but the timeline between different states is absent, lending a dreamlike movement to the poem.
The transitions above move beside the thematic progression from indefinite to definite spaces the speaker proceeds through. The poem commences with a concrete image of the speaker awake, lying alone in bed: “Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened.” The speaker recalls this moment; they “listened.” However, the first verb, “I lay,” can apply to past and present tenses. The sentences, “I lay in the arms of my own warmth right now,” and “I lay in the arms of my own warmth yesterday,” are both grammatically correct since “lay” in addition to being a present tense verb, is the past tense form of “lie.” The ability of this verb to exist in both past and present tenses echoes the simultaneity of past and present that appears in the third stanza’s concluding line: “your presence exactly / So once, so valuable, so very now.” Auden encircles the first three stanzas with language that straddles two temporal locations signaling that the experience recounted in these stanzas occurs in an impossible and blurry space, where the content is both past and present. The speaker further characterizes their state as blurry and confusing in the first stanza’s second two lines where the doubling of the word “storm”: “storm,” and “storminess,” and the word “half”: “half-awake,” and “half-sober” manifest a relation between the chaotic ill-defined sounds of the storm and the speaker’s half-conscious, vaguely aware mental state.
This half-aware, stormy, boundary-blurring space is the poem’s setting for the first three stanzas, where the speaker encounters and has an experience with the sound or language of the storm. Therein, the reader gradually loses sight of the bedroom where the speaker first appeared. Instead, “an upland county” and “a headland of lava” populate the poem’s imagery. Simultaneously, an unnamed individual materializes that is spoken into being by the storm, inhabiting an imaginary space with the speaker. The speaker, through listening, arrives in a state characterized by a vague half-conscious awareness and an impossible simultaneity of past and present, isolation and companionship. In addition, the speaker enters a paradoxical setting where sound produces quiet; the storm “reconstructs a day of peculiar silence.”
In the fourth stanza, this indefinite space opens onto a moment that usually occurs during the period of the engagement with the storm. “This,” the episode of the first three stanzas, happens “at an hour when only too often / A smirking devil annoys me in beautiful English.” With this stanza, the speaker presents and compares what is not happening with what has happened or is currently occurring: “this.” The fourth stanza breaks away from the prior experience, exchanging the storm for “a smirking devil” and the storm’s speech for “beautiful English.” The speaker is no longer in a confusing indefinite space, yet now they are at an even greater distance from the bedroom they awoke in. This stanza is an imagined memory, a potentiality of that “hour.” It sets in motion the poem’s descent into the definite because here, the reader knows the speaker imagines an experience, is recalling a memory, whereas, in the preceding stanzas, because of the dream-like transitions and concurrent tenses, the experience’s reality and temporal location were uncertain.
The final stanza returns the speaker to their original position, but as I argued earlier, the speaker has undergone a change, and the environment has transitioned. The scene itself is not uncertain, yet it questions and doubts the first three stanzas: “I slept till a morning that would not say / How much it believed of what I said the storm had said.” This interaction with “morning” is not happening presently. The speaker is recounting this “morning” exchange which is in itself a recollection of what “the storm had said.” Thus the speaker in this stanza is three levels in time removed from the original experience. The speaker tells a story about how they told the morning of their encounter with the storm. The temporal location of this stanza may be multi-layered, but it is not confusing, indefinite, or impossible. Instead, the above lines call into question the reality of the experience in the first three stanzas. The reader is left uncertain; the morning “would not say / How much it believed” of that initial encounter. Thus as the speaker is entering the most definite stanza of the poem, they are at the same time doubling the lack of certainty present at the opening of the poem. The final transition to the definite is made with the aphoristic last line, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” In the same way that in the first stanza, the speaker processed a chaotic wall of sound into a proper name, the arc of the poem has processed a confusing, half-conscious, and uncertain experience into a declarative, unambiguous statement, equivalent to a scientific principle, the truth value of which is undebatable.
Thus far, I have outlined four characteristics: an interiority and subliminal activity pointed toward in the understated musicality of the poem; a change in the speaker necessitated by an experience; quiet and dreamlike transitions in the poem’s scenery and speaker’s circumstances; and a thematic movement from the indefinite to the definite that happens at both the level of the stanza and the overall poem. These qualities figure into and help shape the central process of the poem.
The active first three stanzas present two figures, the storm and solitude, that appear in tandem, parallel in their motion, at the same time that they are mixing, swirling into one another. The opening lines of the first and third stanzas exhibit the two figures beside one another: “Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened / To a storm,” “Loud though it was, alone as it certainly found me.” In each line, Auden emphasizes the isolation of the speaker, and through listening, through a “loud” sound, the solitary speaker is brought in relation with the “storm,” the “it.” As I argued earlier, the speaker acts upon this storm; they “set to work,” turning its sound into a language in the first stanza. Afterward, the storm, now made into an orator, acts upon the speaker in the second stanza, sounding into “being” a companion for the speaker, “a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind.” By acting upon each other, the solitary speaker and the sounding storm receive the natural counterparts of their original states. The isolated speaker obtains a companion whose “presence” and being is palpable and immediate, “exactly / So once, so valuable, so very now.” The storm, the sounding natural world that is usually semantically silent to humanity despite its uproars, can now speak and do things for humans, “it spoke,” “it reconstructed.” Thus the bulk of the action that unfolds in the first three stanzas is derivative of the opening figures, the solitary speaker, and the sounding storm.
The poem’s final stanza finds the speaker interacting with morning, and this morning sees the reality or unreality of the prior experience as superfluous: it “would not say / How much it believed of what I said the storm had said.” Instead, the morning “quietly drew” the speaker’s “attention to what had been done.” The result of the experience with the storm is the priority straightening the final declaration of the poem: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” This maxim results from the interaction between the two figures I exposed above. The “love” in this line originates in the oscillation between solitude and companionship, the “love-speech” that is enacted earlier in the poem, while the “water” arrives from the storm and the “watery consonants” it was described as having. The “lived without love” follows from the first line, where the speaker was content with their solitude. They were not lonely: “I lay in the arms of my own warmth.” The speaker is self-reliant on their own love, and thus from the beginning of the poem, the ability to live without the love of another has been present. Moreover, the elements necessary for life are also present in the storm from the beginning. The storm was described as having “airy vowels and watery consonants,” air and water being two elements that no one has lived without. Each component of the final line is present in the first stanza, unsynthesized into a single maxim.
Therefore, Auden’s poem depicts a process, a development. He progresses from two figures and their interaction into a maxim that arrives from them and their activity. The two figures, through their acting upon each other, are quietly progressing and converting into the final line. The process that allows the figures to transform into the ending line is one meditated and categorized by a transition from indefinite to definite. This transition is built into the process itself in that the poem moves from an active, boundary-blurring intangible experience of the two figures into a definitive line that arrives from that experience and activity. The change from indefinite to definite also surrounds this development. It is condensed into the first stanza with the turn from sound to language and occurs when in the fourth and fifth stanzas, the poem’s content becomes more certain in its reality and temporal location. The poem directs the reader toward this process that causes a shift in the speaker through the similarity and difference of beginning phrases in the first and last stanzas. Moreover, the dreamlike movement from waking to sleeping, night to morning, and storm to calm underscore this process, emphasizing transition and progression. Lastly, as the poem hinted toward in its formal elements and internal rhymes, the passage from the figures to the maxim enacted in the poem happens subliminally, internally, below the surface. In the last stanza, the speaker is unaware that anything “had been done;” thus, it has happened subconsciously. Instead, they want to know if their experience was real. But, the morning reminds them that despite their encounter’s reality or unreality, a progression has taken place silently underlying their experience. The morning “quietly” draws the speaker’s attention to the result of that process, the concluding line.
Auden does not write a book of maxims like La Rochefoucauld. Instead, he values the twenty-nine lines before the final maxim, the progression that forms the last line. Auden is process-oriented: he places the practice itself first, above the results from that practice. This orientation is reflected in Auden’s lecture “Making, Knowing, and Judging,” in which he said that a poet “is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.” For the poet, and thus for Auden, the process of writing a poem is essential and principal because it is the place where they can be a poet. The process allows them to be what they are; outside it, they are uncertain of their being. This is why process is foremost and is why Auden, in “First Things First,” makes his subject the progressions, transitions, and processes the speaker undergoes to arrive at a result rather than simply presenting the reader with a one-line maxim.
Before concluding, I am compelled to draw attention to what my above analysis does not do, opening “First Things First” back up to the numerous other readings it invites. Firstly, there is the importance of listening in the poem. Listening is the interconnective activity that allows for the movement from sound to language in the first stanza and is the glue that brings together the two figures, the solitary speaker and the sounding storm. The speaker in every area of the poem is listening, whether it be to the storm, the “smirking devil,” or the “morning that would not say.” Secondly, there is the presence of religion, which appears in the fourth stanza. The poem navigates a comparison between the profound direct experience with the storm’s sound in the first three stanzas and the negative experience of “beautiful English” in the fourth stanza, which recalls images of “sacred locations” buried in sand, and people “misinformed” “by their guides.” Lastly, there is the explicit theme of love in the poem, emphasized by the “roses” and the relation between subject and other that is embodied in the speaker listening to the storm, and in the experience the speaker has with the “you.” In addition to these three trajectories for reading, multiple lines in the poem still elude me and propose a greater complexity untouched by my reading, such as the final stanza’s: “—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern / Against a leonine summer—,” or the fourth stanza’s line: “Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do.” These various trajectories and elusive lines display how my above reading centered around progression, process, and movement is only the beginning of an engagement; “First Things First” has much more to say and do.