Auden and the Limits of PoetryALAN JACOBS
By the mid-1930s W. H. Auden was the most famous and most widely imitated young poet in England.
Auden had been unable to believe in God since his adolescence. His loss of faith and his discovery of poetry had come, interestingly enough, at almost the same time. But in the late thirties, as Auden's uncertainty about his role as a poet grew (along with political and social tensions in Europe) some odd things began to happen to him. When in Spain during that country's Civil War, for instance, he was shocked and disturbed to see that supporters of the Republican cause had closed or burned many of Barcelona's churches but he could not account for his own reaction. Soon afterward, he met the English writer and editor Charles Williams, and felt himself to be "in the presence of personal sanctity" though what sanctity meant in a world without God he could not say.
In December 1939 Auden had his most decisive experience of this kind. He went to a theater in what was then a German-speaking section of Manhattan to see a newsreel about the German invasion of Poland, which had occurred three months before. But it was not the film so much as the audience that Auden later remembered. Whenever the Poles appeared on the screen as prisoners, of course, in the hands of the Wehrmacht members of the audience would shout in German, "Kill them! Kill them!" Auden was stunned. "There was no hypocrisy," he recalled many years later: these people were unashamed of their feelings and attempted to put no "civilized" face upon them. "I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value." On what grounds did he have a right to demand, or even a reason to expect, a more "humanistic" response? His inability to answer this question, he explained much later, "brought me back to the Church." By the fall of 1940 he was going to church again, for the first time since childhood, and would affirm the Christian faith for the rest of his days.
However, the many readers who have rejoiced in the work of Auden's fellow British Christians, the Inklings Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, and (peripheral to their circle) Dorothy Sayers have paid little attention to this remarkable man or the extraordinary work that emerged from his embrace of the Christian faith. This is, as we shall see, an understandable but deeply lamentable state of affairs.
Edward Mendelson's marvelous recent book about Auden (Later Auden, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 570 pp., $30) ends with the words, "and his work was done." This conclusion provides the key to understanding Mendelson's project not only in this book but also in its predecessor, 1981's Early Auden. In these two rich and resourceful volumes, Mendelson has written the definitive account of one of the greatest poetic careers of the last century. The story he tells is not the story of Auden's life in the usual sense of the word, though all elements of that life naturally enter into the story; rather, he narrates for us the complex and fascinating history of a body of work, the fruit of a calling. Mendelson gives us the biography of Auden's vocation.
Not long after he began writing poetry at age fifteen, Auden came to understand that words were the medium in which he should work. But who or what imposed this "should" upon him? And how should he use the words he was called upon to use? In Early Auden which began with Auden's first adult poems, written in 1927 when he was twenty years old, and ended with his leaving England in January 1939 Mendelson traced Auden's oscillations among several divergent and probably irreconcilable descriptions of the poet: conjurer, teacher, servant, prophet, redeemer. Later Auden begins with the poet in a new land, a place famous for encouraging new beginnings. When, with his friend Christopher Isherwood, Auden boarded a ship for America, he was the most celebrated young poet in England, but he knew that his career was at an impasse. All of the models for the writing life which he had tried out in the previous decade had come to seem empty, sterile, and in some cases repulsive. But he had no idea what could replace them. The germ of a new understanding, Mendelson shows, can be found in a word that Auden began using just before he left England: he said that the poet had a gift.
The presence of a gift implies the activity of a giver. But who, or what, gives the gift of poetry? Auden's conversion, less than two years later, indicated that he had found an answer to that question. But Auden's conversion did not resolve his puzzlement about his life as a poet: What should he do with the gift that God had given him? During the war years, from his apartment in New York, his pursuit of an answer to that question led him upon a remarkable intellectual and spiritual journey. In reviews and essays commissioned by major American periodicals, he would explore thinkers and ideas that he hoped would help him figure out what he was supposed to do, as a poet and a man: he considered Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, along with a host of less well-known figures like the historian Charles Norris Cochrane and, a little later on, the polymathic but eccentric philosopher-historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.
As Mendelson demonstrates, Auden's essays and reviews consistently depicted these figures as having some significant contribution to make to the interpretation of Western culture at that particular and terrible moment. But in the poems Auden was writing at the same time, Mendelson convincingly argues, he was preoccupied with the questions he could not answer, with the doubts that even the greatest of his intellectual helpers left unassuaged. Among these poems are some of Auden's finest achievements, including the three long poems he wrote between 1941 and 1947, "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," "The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on The Tempest," and "The Age of Anxiety: a Baroque Eclogue." The first and last of these, Mendelson contends, have brilliant passages but are flawed in either their concept or execution; and even the masterful "The Sea and the Mirror" fails to offer a clear and satisfying account of the problem it sets out to address, namely, whether art can have spiritual significance. (Auden told his friend Ursula Niebuhr the wife of Reinhold that the poem was "really about the Christian conception of art.")
Mendelson fully recognizes the greatness of this poem, and the extraordinarily intelligent ambitions of the other two. His point is not that the poems are less than they could have been, but rather that none of them satisfied its author. In the thirties, Auden had nurtured hopes that the poet might be a prophet to or even a redeemer of a sick and chaotic society. In the aftermath of his conversion, his thinking dominated by what he later called a "neo-Calvinist (i.e., Barthian) exaggeration of God's transcendence," he found poetry valuable only when it acknowledged its hopeless, incompetent distance from anything true or good that it tried to represent.
One sees this notion vividly illustrated in one of the concluding speeches of "The Sea and the Mirror," a poem that adapts and transforms various elements of Shakespeare's The Tempest. In this passage, Auden's Caliban explains what he thinks to be the only kind of situation in which the artist receives any genuine illumination. He asks us to imagine "the greatest grandest opera rendered by a very provincial touring company indeed." Paradoxically, it is the very poverty and ineptitude of the production that makes it valuable to its actors, for even though "there was not a single aspect of our whole performance, not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness, for which a kind word could, however patronizingly, be said," nevertheless it is "at this very moment [that] we do at last see ourselves as we are." And, more important, "for the first time in our lives we hear . . . the real Word which is our only raison d'Ítre." At the moment when all pretense to aesthetic achievement helplessly falls away, and the actors are confronted with the authentic selves which they had used their performances to escape, they come to see God precisely in their distance from Him:
. . . we are blessed with that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf of which our contrived fissures of mirror and proscenium arch we understand them at last are feebly figurative signs. . . . It is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work that is not ours.
Similarly, Auden's Prospero, musing on the kind of life he will live after giving up his magical powers, says "I never dreamed the way of truth / Was a way of silence." But if Prospero is right, what can the poet do except stop writing? One suspects that at this point in his career Auden was contemplating just that that is, making his adaptation of The Tempest his farewell to poetry, just as The Tempest itself has always been read as Shakespeare's (and not just Prospero's) farewell to the dramatic arts. And yet, Auden continued to believe that poetry was the vocation to which he had been called, not just by his temperament or aptitudes, but by God himself, "the author and giver of all good things" (as he wrote in a 1940 poem). But how, given the incapacity of language to grasp the most important things in and beyond this world, could he fulfill that calling?
In thinking through this problem, Auden gained insight from Kierkegaard; he found especially useful the Danish thinker's notion of "indirect communication." (This is a theme that Mendelson makes too little of, but since almost every other critic of Auden has made too much of it, the fault is easily pardonable.) Many of Kierkegaard's works in fact, all of his most famous ones are not explicitly Christian. Such books are easily identifiable because Kierkegaard did not sign his name to them: they appeared under various pseudonyms. These works approach the questions with which Christianity is most concerned, but they do not offer Christian answers to those questions; indeed, their failure to produce compelling responses is just what leads the reader toward the Christian faith that alone can provide what we need. "An illusion can never be destroyed directly," Kierkegaard wrote, "and only by indirect means can it be radically removed."
Auden adopted this approach, and adapted it to his poetic needs. In the great poems of his maturity, Christianity appears as the missing piece of the puzzle, the answer to a question no one thought to ask. In "The Shield of Achilles," for instance one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century the blacksmith god Hephaestos, watched by Achilles' mother Thetis, portrays our world as it appears to the carnal eye, the eye unillumined by faith. He inscribes on the shield "three pale figures" being bound to three posts; the poem indicates their condition:
mass and majesty of this world, all
A little later we see another figure:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
In the Christian understanding, we indeed live in a world where such events occur. But the cold eye of Hephaestos, while it sees with terrifying clarity, is blind to some things: that one of those three bound figures may be different than the other two; that somewhere promises are kept; and that people weep with their brothers and sisters who weep. In Auden's poem the Christian interpretation of history is evoked all the more powerfully by its absence: the indirect communication of "The Shield of Achilles" has a force more overt testimonials often lack.
The Christian faith helped Auden to keep writing in another way as well, by offering him though not immediately, and not without years of profound study and reflection a way of comprehending a problem that had obsessed him for many years: the relationship between freedom and necessity. In almost every major poem he wrote after coming to America, says Mendelson, Auden in some way "incorporated the significant events of his life. But he confronted each time a new variation on his inner debate: whether those events were better understood as the product of involuntary necessity or of free choice." Mendelson begins his book by reflecting on this obsession of Auden's, and one of the great achievements of Later Auden is the skillful patience and critical tact with which he explores Auden's changing views on this vital subject.
Auden came to formulate the problem in this way: alone among the creatures, human beings live in history as well as in nature. In the natural world all obey the laws that govern their being; only we make choices and live out the consequences of them. That's what history means. In a lovely poem called "Their Lonely Betters," Auden sits in a chair in his garden, listens, and thinks about what he hears:
A robin with no Christian name ran
one of them was capable of lying,
Let them leave
language to their lonely betters
The robin cannot decide what song to sing; the flowers cannot select their mates. These creatures, living wholly in nature, neither celebrate the wisdom nor lament the folly of their choices, for they have no choices to make. We, on the other hand, must and do choose, and thereby enter into the historical world of accountability ("responsibility for time"). We know what it means to have "promises to keep" and what it means to break them.
But we are not just historical beings. We are also participants in nature, and in that sense we too are part of the Creation. And Mendelson shows, as no other critic has yet shown, how Auden came to wrestle with and ultimately to accept, with gratitude the limits and circumscriptions of our natural, our bodily, lives.
I have said that Auden was deeply influenced by Kierkegaard, but he gradually came to understand that there were some valuable and necessary things that Kierkegaard didn't understand. Late in his life, Auden would write of Kierkegaard that, "like all heretics, conscious or unconscious, he is a monodist, who can hear with particular acuteness one theme in the New Testament in his case, the theme of suffering and self-sacrifice but is deaf to its rich polyphony. . . . The Passion of Christ was to Kierkegaard's taste, the Nativity and Epiphany were not." Auden contends that, while Kierkegaard's consciously held beliefs were scrupulously orthodox, he was "in his sensibility" a Manichee, who felt strongly the evil and degradation of matter, of our bodies. Indeed, Auden wrote in another essay, with pardonable exaggeration, "A planetary visitor might read through the whole of his voluminous works without discovering that human beings are not ghosts but have bodies of flesh and blood." And to have bodies of flesh and blood is to live in the world of nature's necessity as well as in the world of history, of existential choice.
Auden thus increasingly came to believe that we are emphatically compound beings, subject always to natural laws and yet called upon to "assume responsibility for time" by making decisions decisions whose inevitable consequences are yet another form of necessity. For Auden, this peculiar situation is, above all, comic. There is something intrinsically funny about our mixed identity, as we try to exercise Divine powers of decision and yet always find our bodies getting in the way. "A sense of humor develops in a society to the degree that its members are simultaneously conscious of being each a unique person and of being all in common subjection to unalterable laws." And this sense of humor about one's condition is for Auden absolutely necessary to spiritual health. He may have dreamed in his youth of redeeming the world through his poetic power or being destroyed in the effort, but as an older man he found himself, as he often remarked, just a "martyr to corns," which afflicted his feet and made him comfortable only in carpet slippers.
By the 1950s most of the people who had admired the young Auden had rejected his mature poetry as trivial. But the heart of Mendelson's book, in many respects, is his demonstration that in this later poetry Auden is working "at the height of his powers," though in a poetic idiom that was incomprehensible to those who loved the gnomic and hieratic pronouncements of Auden's earlier verse. In 1948, Mendelson notes, Auden
began to write poems about the inarticulate human body . . . : the body that never asks to be regimented or idealized, feels no abstract hatred or intellectual envy, believes no theories, and is moved by impulses that, fortunately for us, are not exactly the same as our own. He dedicated to the body some of his most profound poems, works whose depth and breadth have been underestimated because their treatment of their subject matter was novel and unexpected in an age whose writers hesitated to see the body as "simply, publicly, there." And because he learned to value the body as sacred in itself, Auden learned to believe in it as the means and promise of salvation.
"Means" is perhaps not quite right. It is not through the body that we are saved, but we are saved as embodied creatures, and saved for a future of embodiment. Auden came to believe the doctrine of the resurrection of the body a vital one and a necessary corrective to the implicit Gnosticism and Manicheanism of his existentialist influences. But Mendelson's argument is compelling, and if there is any justice in the world it will put an end to the ill-informed dismissals of Auden's later verse.
Auden's poems about the body are often poems of gratitude and thanksgiving. In a poem dedicated to his senses, "Precious Five," he concludes by invoking
In one sense this recurrent emphasis on blessing and thankfulness is a correction of the theology that dominated Auden's early years as a Christian. I have already noted how important for Auden was Kierkegaard's statement that "before God we are always in the wrong." In that movie theater in Manhattan, Auden confronted his own infinite capacity for sinfulness as well as that of the Germans. One of Auden's friends relates that he taught Sunday School in 1942, and once asked the class, "Do you know what the Devil looks like?" He then answered his own question: "The Devil looks like me." Not too long afterward, he wrote of his conviction that Jesus is Lord: "I believe because he fulfills none of my dreams, because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image." But why not one of the other great teachers, like Buddha or Muhammad? Because, Auden wrote, chillingly, "none of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry 'Crucify Him.'" Auden never rejected this deep conviction of his depravity, but he came to realize that if he tried to build his whole theology around it he would become, like Kierkegaard, a "monodist" and an inadvertent heretic. Thus the necessary poems of praise and thanksgiving.
It is in light of this sought theological balance that we may best understand Auden's sequence of poems "Horae Canonicae," based on the "canonical hours" that govern time in monastic communities and many churches. These poems have rarely been given serious attention, but Mendelson points out that they "occupied [Auden's] attention longer than any other" work of his career seven years, off and on and believes that they constitute "arguably his greatest work." In these poems, some of which are deceptively casual in tone, Auden attempts to do no less than to encompass self-censure and gratitude, necessity and freedom.
The first poem, "Prime," begins with an awakening. In this first preconscious moment of opening eyes Auden is (as we all are) an "Adam still previous to any act"; but he is also (as we all are) "Afraid of our living task, the dying / Which the coming day will ask." In the next poem he speaks of "our victim," the one who will do the dying, the one who "knows that by sundown / We shall have had a good Friday." Writes Mendelson, "The day in which the events [of this sequence] occur is Good Friday, and also any day; and the place where they occur is Jerusalem with its law court and temple, and also the Italian fishing village where the poems were written, or anywhere." This juxtaposition of times and situations is made possible by the understanding of time embodied in the canonical hours. In them, as in the larger calendar of the church year, unrepeatable events (the pronouncement of judgment, the Crucifixion, the deposition from the Cross) are remembered and in a sense reenacted. But of course this remembrance is done day after day, year after year, according to the necessary rhythms of the seasons and our bodies. Thus the sequence ends, not with the evening prayer of "Compline," but with "Lauds," the song of another morning.
This second morning song not only emphasizes the repetitive nature of bodily actions, including worship, but also indicates, in Mendelson's eloquent words, the blessed movement "from fatal memory to unconditional hope."
This is no transcendent escape from the physical world but an undignified, saving scramble back into it. In imagining it, [Auden] found himself at home not only in both his work and his body their reconciliation is one of the private achievements of the poem but also in the double world of nature and history, neither an imaginary past nor a visionary future, but the place he lived now.
Only if we live in the world where God has placed us can we fulfill the vocations to which He has called us.
Why are Christians so indifferent to Auden? It is a question made compelling by Mendelson's brilliant and sympathetic analysis. It is certainly true that Auden is not nearly as accessible a writer as Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, or Charles Williams. Neither, however, is T. S. Eliot, and yet Eliot continues to hold a totemic status for Christians interested in modern literature, while Auden is almost completely neglected. This state of affairs bears reflection.
The first problem is an obvious one: throughout Auden's life he was a practicing homosexual. After his conversion to Christianity, such sexual activity became problematic for him. His good friend Christopher Isherwood wrote of Auden's attitude toward his homosexuality that "his religion condemned it and he agreed that it was sinful, though he fully intended to go on sinning."
This is only partly right. In a letter to Isherwood a letter that may have been the source of Isherwood's comment Auden wrote, "Though I believe it sinful to be queer, it has at least saved me from becoming a pillar of the Establishment." The comment is illuminating. Auden tried to resist his sexual temptations, but felt them to be stronger than he was. In one poem he ruefully echoes a famous prayer of Augustine's, writing "I am sorry I'm not sorry . . . / Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet." But his determination to "bless what there is for being" led him to seek ways to be grateful to God even for his sins and afflictions, through which he believed God to work for His own purposes. Hence his thankfulness not to have become an Establishment figure. He also believed that the homosexual was less likely to engage in the idolatry of eros that is so common among heterosexuals. In his view his sexuality was, therefore, an affliction that bore the seeds of potential blessings.
But however complex Auden's attitude toward these matters, the mere fact that he was homosexual has written him off the books of many Christians even Christians who are quick to forgive C. S. Lewis' peculiar liaison with Mrs. Moore, or Charles Williams' penchant for spanking and being spanked by young women. The Christian world has its hierarchy of sins, and may be right in its judgments. But it is singularly unfortunate that, even if we have judged Auden's sins rightly, we should allow that judgment to stand in the way of learning from the wisdom contained in his writings.
In any case, homosexuality alone is not enough to explain the Christian neglect of Auden. More important, perhaps, is his Kierkegaardian emphasis on indirect communication. This emphasis stemmed from Auden's determination to repent of his, and his fellow poets', prideful assertions of their own importance. But Christian readers, for the most part, don't want their poets to be humble: being somewhat Romantic in taste, they tend to prefer their poets to be seers, prophets, "unacknowledged legislators of the world" (as Shelley put it) just as long as they are Christian seers, prophets, legislators. As they often say, they like poems that are "redemptive." But Auden understood that nothing and no one is redemptive except Jesus Christ and thus he called Shelley's famous line "the silliest remark ever made about poets." As he wrote to Clio, the mythological Muse of History,
Approachable as you seem,
He sent this poem to J. R. R. Tolkien, and in an accompanying letter referred to it as "a hymn to Our Lady." Mary, as the mother of Christ, presides over the world's moments of ultimate significance: What can poetry add to the Incarnation or the Passion of our Lord?
Auden consistently repudiated the notion that poetry has any privileged access to truth, any especially sanctified role to play. Poetry was certainly his vocation, and he loved it. As Mendelson writes, "Vocation, for Auden, is the most innocent form of love, a voluntary loss of self in an object." He knew he would be wrong not to love his work, not to achieve what he called "that eye-on-the-object look" characteristic of people who are "forgetting themselves in a function." But he would never claim that his calling was superior to any other. In this sense he was purely Lutheran, emphasizing the dignity of every calling before God. It is not surprising that he wrote a poem based on the medieval legend of le jong-leur de Dieu, the poor "clown of God" who can offer nothing to the Christ Child but his juggling and whose offering is received, not because it has special value, but because he gave what he had to give.
As a result of this penitential humility, Auden came to insist over and over again that one cannot in poetry speak the Truth directly and unequivocally. In one of his most powerful poems, "Friday's Child," he remembers, in a characteristically oblique way, the martyr's death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (The title is typical of Auden's approach: he trusts us to remember that "Friday's child is loving and giving," and trusts us also to understand that the old Mother Goose rhyme draws on the memory of Good Friday, when God loved and gave most fully.) The poem concludes with an invocation, and a recommendation, of silence in the face of an evil that cannot be comprehended and a faith that, as Kierkegaard said, can be neither explained nor justified:
Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgment Day.
a silence on the cross
guess from the insulted face
The key phrase here, I believe, is "We dare not say." It is not the same as "We dare not believe" though Auden often confessed in his later years to dark times of doubt nor does it mean "We dare not proclaim," since undoubtedly Auden often did proclaim, in church at least, "On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures." Auden's "we" does not refer to Christians, but to poets, whose tendency (as he writes in another poem) to "utter some resonant lie" makes them unfit bearers of the gospel proclamation. As Auden said repeatedly, almost obsessively, "Orthodoxy is reticence"; orthodoxy is knowing when to shut up. This is not a teaching that many Christian readers want to hear from their poets. But Auden knew what poetry can't do, and always felt the need to put himself and other poets in their proper place. Thus the wittily self-deflating question in "Compline": "Can poets (can men in television) / Be saved?"
Late in his life, he said in a lecture that he and his "fellow-citizens of the Republic of Letters" a phrase coined by Voltaire had but one "political duty": "To love the Word and defend it against its enemies." And who or what are those enemies? The "principal enemies of the True Word are two: the Idle Word and the Black Magician." On the one hand, he came to see much of his early poetry as intolerably careless not only in its technique but in its disregard for whether it meant what it said. It was full of idle words. But the other enemy was more dangerous still. The Black Magician encourages poets to believe that they can be prophets and redeemers. Or, as Auden put it once in a review, he tries to make a person attempt "to do for himself or others by the writing of poetry what can only be done in some other way, by action, or study, or prayer." Auden uses poetry to remind us of what poetry can never give us. But, in the end, this assigns poetry a genuine and important role, as it points always beyond itself in a strangely mute witness to that of which it is unable definitively to speak. As Auden wrote in one of his later poems,
We can only
Alan Jacobs "Auden and the Limits of Poetry." First Things 115 (August/September 2001): 26-32.
This article is reprinted with permission from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things call 1-800-783-4903.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2001 First
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