Johnny, since to-day is
February the twelfth when
neighbors and relations
think of you and wish,
though a staunch Aquarian,
graciously accept the
verbal celebrations
of a doubtful fish.

seven years ago you
warmed your mother’s heart by
making a succesful
debut on our stage;
naivete’s an act that
you already know you
cannot get away with
even at your age.

so I wish you first a
sense of theatre; only
those who love illusion
and know it will go far:
otherwise we spend our
lives in a confusion
of what we say and do with
who we really are.

you will any day now
have this revelation:
“why, we’re all like people
acting in a play.”
and will suffer, Johnny,
man’s unique temptation
precisely at the moment
you utter this cliche.

remember if you can then,
only the All-Father
can change the cast or give them
easier lines to say;
deliberate interferrance
with others for their own good
is not allowed the author
of the play within The Play.

just because our pride’s an
evil there’s no end to,
birthdays and the arts are
justified, for when
we consciously pretend to
own the earth or play at
being gods, thereby we
own that we are men.

as a human creature
you will all too often
forget your proper station,
Johnny, like us all;
therefore let your birthday
be a wild occasion like a Saturnalia
or a Servant’s Ball.

what else shall I wish you?
following convention
shall i wish you Beauty,
Money, Happiness?
or anything you mention?
no, for I recall an
ancient proverb—nothing
fails like a success.

what limping devil sets our
head and heart at variance,
that each time the Younger
Generation sails,
the old and weather-beaten
deny their own experience
and pray the gods to send them
calm seas, auspicious gales?

I’m not such an idiot
as to claim the power
to peer into the vistas
of your future, still
I’m prepared to guess you
have not found your life as
easy as your sister’s
and you never will.

if I’m right about this,
may you in your troubles,
neither (like so many
in the U.S.A.)
be ashamed of any
suffering as vulgar,
nor bear them like a hero
in the biggest way.

all the possibilities
it had to reject are
what give life and warmth to
an actual character;
the roots of wit and charm tap
secret springs of sorrow,
every brilliant doctor
hides a murderer.

then, since all self-knowledge
tempts man into envy,
may you, by acquiring
proficiency in what
Whitehead calls the art of
Negative Prehension,
love without desiring
all that you are not.

Tao is a tightrope,
so to keep your balance,
may you always, Johnny,
manage to combine
intellectual talents
with a sensual gusto,
the Socratic Doubt with
the Socratic Sign.

that is all I can
think of at this moment
and it’s time I brought these
verses to a close:
Happy Birthday, Johnny,
live beyond your income,
travel for enjoyment,
follow your own nose.

W.H. Auden