Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
- The first line of the second stanza is more typical-love-poem stuff. The speaker says that souls and bodies have no boundaries as lovers lie together. The lovers seem to share bodies and souls with each other as they are tangled up in each other's arms.
- Then, the speaker sets the scene a bit. These imaginary lovers are lying on "her" enchanted slope? Who is the "her"? Where is this slope? Is it a hillside? An off-kilter bed? And why is the slope tolerant? Does this have to do with the fact that Auden is a gay poet and in a relationship with a man? Is this what "tolerance" is about? Or is this a different kind of tolerance? These are all good questions to be asking right about now. Some of them will be answered in our analysis of the rest of the poem.
- The speaker makes sure to let us know that the experience of the lovers is "ordinary." Yes, it might seem quite special to them, but love is natural and universal. What is more ordinary than being in love?
Grave the vision Venus sends
Or supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
- Okay, so now we know who the "her" is: it's Venus!
- Who is Venus, you ask? Well, she's the Roman goddess of love. Easy. When Venus arrives in the poem, you know there's some lovin' going on.
- Auden's Venus isn't exactly as rosy as we might think, though. The speaker says that she brings a "grave" vision to the lovers. "Grave" here is an adjective, and it means serious and severe. But, duh, it also reminds us of the noun "grave." You know, where dead people are. Once again, our speaker is getting morbid on us.
- And what about her "tolerant enchanted slope"? Are these lovers actually lying on Venus' body somehow? Probably not. We're just going to have to go with this. Auden's being poetic. (Hey, this is poetry after all.)
- Despite its graveness, the vision that Venus brings to the lovers is pretty sweet. She sends them "supernatural sympathy," the understanding, and maybe even the well-wishes, of gods like herself.
- She also sends them "universal love and hope." Not bad. We wouldn't mind some of that.
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.
- You might be asking yourself now: what is going on? That would be a normal reaction. The poem started off in bed. Then we moved to some kind of hillside in the speaker's imagination. Now we're chilling with a hermit in the glaciers? What happened?
- Well, this is a poem. The speaker can take up pretty much wherever he wants. Here, he decides to take us to a desolate and cold place.
- In this cold place, there's a hermit, which is another name for a recluse or loner. So, before we had lovers all tangled up, and now we have a lonely dude in some ice. The speaker has drawn a comparison here. There's a huge difference between the scene on the enchanted slope and the lone hermit.
- The hermit doesn't have it so bad, though. He is awakened by an "abstract insight," also known as, well, a thought or idea. And his experience of this thought brings about a "carnal ecstasy." We could also call this a very intense and erotic bodily experience (in fact, in the original version, the phrase was "sensual ecstasy").
- Why bring the hermit into the poem at all? Well, we have a little theory. We can do a very biographical reading of this poem, and think about the limited options for gay men in the 1930s (when this poem was written). Most gay men at the time were closeted; many didn't even tell their friends and family that they were gay. Maybe they were a little bit like hermits, having to experience life alone.
- It could be that the hermit in the poem somehow shares in Venus' vision of lovers sharing bodies and souls, and this is the abstract insight that awakens him. This is just one possible reading of the stanza. There certainly are others ways that you could read it we have to do a lot of reading between the lines with Auden.