From John Le Carré's Smiley's People:

Lacon, Strickland, Mostyn, thought Smiley as Strickland’s Aberdonian brogue hammered on. One Cabinet Office factotum, one Circus fixer, one scared boy. Why not real people? Why not Vladimir’s case officer, whoever he is? Why not Saul Enderby, their Chief?

A verse of Auden’s rang in his mind from the days when he was Mostyn’s age: Let us honour if we can/The vertical man/ Though we value none/But the horizontal one. Or something.

And why Smiley? he thought. Above all, why me? Of all people, when as far as they’re concerned I’m deader than old Vladimir.

What do "the vertical man" and "the horizontal one" quoted from Auden's verse mean here? Does the former refer to the living and the latter the dead?

1 Answer 1


This is indeed a verse of WH Auden and the quote is accurate and complete. The poem is a quatrain called The Horizontal Man.

Let us honour if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.

There are various interpretations of this verse. Perhaps the most obvious is that it's an expression of the way we tend to celebrate dead people while criticising those who are living.

Another way of looking at it is as an instruction to live in the present - while we are vertical - rather than in the past, when we lie in our tombs.

The relevance of the verse to this scene is twofold. Firstly, this is a meeting concerning a dead agent - General Vladimir - and Smiley is curious as to why more relevant people are not present. This would seem to be in opposition to the theme of the verse: Smiley is essentially wondering why more "honour" is not being shown to Vladimir.

Second, Smiley has been recalled from retirement to essentially bury any potential scandal. Smiley is also the "horizontal" man in this scenario - he's "deader than old Vladimir" as the quote says, a figure from the past, which would tie into the second interpretation of the verse. Furthermore, the fact he's there to "bury" the scandal has a tangential connection to this poem about death.


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