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This article is taken from PN Review 161, Volume 31 Number 3, January - February 2005.

The Grim Consolations of the North Peter Davidson

To say 'we leave for the north tonight' brings immediate associations of austerity and dearth: uplands and ice-fields, adverse weather, isolation. Thrillers about night journeys, encounters in mountain passes, manhunts over wild country.

In the summer of 1936, W.H. Auden was staying at the school house at Hallormastadur in Iceland, where he spent a morning playing through a collection of German songs:

Really they choose funny things to cheer themselves up with. How about this for a soldier's song

         Die bange Nacht is nun herum
         Wir reiten still, wir reiten stumm
         Wire reiten ins Verderben.

[Dreadful night is all around/we ride in silence, silently/we ride to our destruction.]

He goes on to describe other songs in the volume: expressions of a stark aesthetic of violence and anticipated death, and comments that it had belonged to a German married to an Icelander, who had also left behind Nazi racial propaganda.

What Auden finds in the German hussar's song is a consistently disturbing element in the literature of the north and of the high mountains, the grim consolation of those - from Grettir the Strong to Dougal Haston - who are narcissistically aware of the imminence of their own deaths. This male narcissism, ineluctably masochistic, is central to the aesthetics of the mountaineer or explorer as well as of the hussar. To move north (all snowlines are, in metaphor, norths; all ascents northward progresses) is ...

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