Limbo Culture

I came across this just now while looking for something else. It was sent to me by the best teacher I ever had, KM. I can still hear his voice, “Good grief, Phil.—! If you don’t like it just say so!”

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Limbo Culture, by W. H. Auden

The tribes of Limbo, travellers report,

On first encounter seem much like ourselves;

They keep their houses practically clean,

Their watches round about a standard time,

They serve you almost appetising meals:

But no one says he saw a Limbo child.

The language spoken by the tribes of Limbo

Has many words far subtler than our own

To indicate how much, how little, something

Is pretty closely or not quite the case,

But none you could translate by ‘Yes’ or ‘No’,

Nor do its pronouns distinguish between Persons.

In tales related by the tribes of Limbo,

Dragon and Knight set to with fang and sword

But miss their rival always by a hair’s-breadth,

Old Crone and Stripling pass a crucial point,

She seconds early and He seconds late,

A magic purse mistakes the legal tender.

“And so,” runs their concluding formula,

“Prince and Princess are nearly married still.”

Why this concern, so marked in Limbo culture,

This love for inexactness? Could it be

A Limbo tribesman only loves himself?

For that, we know, cannot be done exactly.

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