Auden's Rediscovery of Christianity
A paper by Philip Harvey given at a seminar on the poet W.H. Auden, as part of a joint presentation with Dr William Johnston at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, on Wednesday the 6th of April 2011.
1. The Master of Versification
W. H. Auden (1907-1973) clearly had the view that a poet, especially a great poet and he was only interested in being a great poet, had to have command of all the poetic forms. When we open the Collected Works we find every imaginable form of poem.
There is the villanelle or pantoum:
There is the limerick:
Later in life Auden turned his view about forms into promotion. He would instruct younger poets to learn the forms as the basis of their craft, and we should remember that he is doing this at a time in English when free verse and free expression had become rapidly the norm, e.g the Beats. When someone would mention to him some obscure oriental form of poem that he was unfamiliar with it would make him grumpy because (1) he should have known about this form already and (2) he hadn't yet written a poem in this form, so was not living up to his own expectations.
There is the haiku:
There is the medieval Welsh form the cywydd:
It is difficult to say where Auden got this idea, that poets had to write in every form. Although all poets have Shakespeare breathing down their neck and Shakespeare was a marvel with the forms, it is a test to find any poet before Auden for whom mastery of all the forms is not just clever but a requirement. We think of Hardy and Browning, we think of Arnold and Keats, all of whom wanted to break from the 18th century chains of the couplet. But it does seem that Auden is new and his effect since in getting poets to think in terms of the multiform has been huge.
There is the ode:
There is the clerihew:
Here are some reasons for Auden's 'thing' about being a master of versification. First, poetry for Auden is a hoot. It is a schoolboy game. It is about how many ways a schoolboy can say different things in different ways. Second, poems are, as he says in one piece, "extensions of his power to charm." Third, Auden was a great great reader and an anthologist. What I mean is, he didn't just read everything, when it was poetry he saw a form and had to have a go at it. This happens when a literature is very rich and diverse and long. Auden looks into the literature and must imitate all of it. In this way he joins the society of writers, he writes himself into their history.
There is the couplet:
One last consideration is how amazingly Auden takes forms and does something new with them. He makes quantum leaps of imagination and this is a main reason why Auden continues to have a big following; is read in preference to many of his peers. He is the master of surprise. He makes unexpected connections of idea and verse form that always prove to be just right.
There is the riposte:
There is the elegy, with here lines to Freud:
2. England and the United States
When we talk about the English Auden we are talking about the 1930s. We are talking about an amazing outpouring of sometimes very challenging verbal objects. Auden was a prodigy. From his early twenties he is making poetry that doesn't sound like anything else:
He writes of landscapes that are troubled, populated with looming and doomed humans often playing out indeterminate roles. While someone might like to call this nature poetry, the country and its inhabitants are uneasy. Past and future are unresolved.
As well as being spectacular virtuoso performances, witness the enduring delight of Letter to Lord Byron, right from the start Auden also is running counter to many of the established traditions of English poetry, or using them in new ways.
The poet, like many in the 1930s, discovered psychoanalysis and took it upon himself to be a psychoanalyst. He would analyse his friends and colleagues, so for example when he had worked out how Benjamin Britten ticked he not only told Britten in direct language, but then gave advice based on this scintillating and insightful knowledge as to how Britten should behave in future. Whatever the accuracy or truth of Auden's case study, we see this as one of the causes in the breakdown of relations between Auden and Britten. Is it any wonder? But when Auden transfers this propensity for psychoanalysis to society in general and through the poetry, very interesting things happen. He gave to us, for example, the definition of the 1930s as The Age of Anxiety.
Auden is restless. He whoops it up in Berlin. He visits Iceland to explore an ancestry that may or may not be verifiable. He goes to Spain to assist the republicans but departs unconvinced and dismayed. He travels to China with Christopher Isherwood, ostensibly to write journalism. While on the way he stops off in Egypt. He writes this sonnet:
Much has been said about why Auden went with Isherwood in 1939 to live in America. When we look at his activities up until that time several facts are prominent. Auden cannot settle in England. He is out of love. He lives at odds with many of the mores of respectable English society. On the one hand he is extremely popular with many of those he comes into contact with, on the other hand he is unhappy and England is one of the sources of that unhappiness. He is too familiar with the institutions of England, he knows them too well. He carries his own wound. He is restless for new found lands. When it comes to his first duty and vocation, the English language, the choice elsewhere is obvious: New York City.
We shall never know what he would have done or written if he had stayed in England, but we do know what he wrote when he went to America. Much of his time is spent looking across the Atlantic at the unfolding catastrophe of war and social disintegration. Much of his poetry in the next few years is wrapped up in the very same analysis of the illnesses of society that lead to such devastation. Here, for example, is part of a song sometimes titled 'Refugee Blues', which ought to be required reading in all schools and customs departments today. It starts:
And the song concludes:
3. Auden's Rediscovery of Christianity
Writing in 1956, Auden recalled his English upbringing:
The atmosphere of my home was, I should say, unusually devout, though not in the least repressive or gloomy. My parents were Anglo-Catholics, so that my first religious memories are of exciting magical rites (at six I was a boatboy) rather than of listening to sermons. For this I am very grateful, as it implanted in me what I believe to be the correct notion of worship, namely, that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling or thinking.
It so happened that the bishop of our diocese was an extreme modernist who refused to visit the church we attended; consequently I was accustomed from my earliest years to doctrinal and liturgical controversy. Dissenters and Low Churchmen were known as 'Prots' and accused of squatting instead of kneeling; on the other hand, a firm line was drawn between 'Devotions', which were all right, and 'Benediction', which was definitely over the Roman border. I grew up, therefore, with a conception of the Church which is, I suppose, uniquely Anglican, as a community in which wide divergences of doctrine and rite can and do exist without leading necessarily to schism or excommunication.
Readers of Auden too often overlook or do not properly appreciate his lifelong relationship to the Anglican Church. For those familiar with Anglo-Catholic practice the image of Auden as a boatboy says a great deal: he is an important, in fact unique, part of the action, but he knows he is just one part of the action. For Auden religion is cultural and deeply engaged. It is about community, everybody is doing it and everybody has a proper sense of what they are on about. It is a secure world and special, to be respected. Indeed, it is so secure that he can leave it and come back to it just as he feels. From his youth and through his twenties this is exactly what happened. He lost interest in religion and took up all sorts of new causes, including Marxism and Freudian psychology. The passage above shows that Auden's religious understanding is already formed long before the personal crisis of 1940-41 that led to his conversion and consequent dedication to Christianity. He owns a developed sense of liturgy and church music that he keeps for his whole life. He is well aware of religious difference but is tolerant and very certain of his own grounding.
Auden recounts that before he went to New York in 1939 he had already had experiences of holiness felt in the presence of other people. He talks about these encounters as moments where he felt "transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving." Auden is saying that he sees the Holy Spirit at work in people.
When he goes to Spain during the Civil War he is shocked to see that all the churches are closed and there are no clergy in sight. He is shocked and disturbed by this and cannot dismiss it as "a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church." He discovers that church is important to him, even if he cannot say why. This experience is related to a much bigger reality in Europe at the time, fascism.
The United States is a very religious country with many churches. It can be observed that Auden escapes his English world when he goes to New York, but the one English thing he doesn't give up is his religion. And of all the possibilities on offer, he rediscovers his Anglicanism in New York. It is here, in the Episcopal Church and in the company of such mighty Protestant theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, that Auden attains positions about Christianity that can respond to the fascists who make a mockery of justice, liberty, and love of neighbour. He needs to find answers to the barbarous indifference and cruelty of fascism and finds, not without some surprise in fact, that the answer is in Christianity.
The other historical situation that moves Auden into conversion is personal. Auden is someone with a deep need for love, affirmation and personal lifelong companionship. The person with whom he believes he has a found this relationship betrays him, leaving him not just devastated but prone to demonic and destructive forces. How to deal with those forces inside him is something he knows he must learn.
In literary terms, Auden's take on Christian teaching and practice can be seen everywhere in his work. The Australian poet Peter Porter thought Auden was the tops but was always troubled by his religion. Late in life Porter would say that Auden didn't really believe in God but that he thought God was a good idea. This opinion tells us more about Porter than Auden and reminds us that many of Auden's greatest fans remain uncomfortable with Auden's Christianity.
Theologically, Auden became unquestionably Nicene, to the degree that he loved to play spot-the-heresy when confronted with any new theory about anything. But Auden also said that doctrines of the church are like shaggy dog stories and that you miss the point as soon as you go into too much analysis. Auden endorsed Dietrich Bonhoeffer's line: "We ought not to try and be more religious than God Himself."
He also liked to quote Bonhoeffer to this effect: "There is always a danger of intense love destroying the 'polyphony' of life. What I mean is that we should love God eternally with our whole hearts, yet not so as to compromise or diminish our earthly affections, but as a kind of cantus fermus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Earthly affection is one of those contrapuntal themes, a theme which enjoys an autonomy of its own." We can see why this musical analogy for love in its different forms would appeal to Auden. Bonhoeffer is affirming the love we have for one another, including erotic love, as distinct from but completely part of and intelligible through our love of God.
A theological view that seems also to be a powerful rebuke to too much theology is this line of Ferdinand Ebner's, often quoted by Auden: "To talk about God, except in the context of prayer, is to take His name in vain."
Another view of the religion that I would ascribe to an Anglican sensibility comes in a sermon given in Westminster Abbey in 1966, where Auden says: "Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn't one, either in faith or morals....Where faith is concerned, very few of us have the right to say more than — to vary a saying of Simone Weil's -— I believe in a God who is like the True God in everything except that he does not exist, for I have not yet reached the point where God exists." His view that, in effect, no one can be a Christian (it's too difficult, if not indeed impossible to be like Christ) and that we can only try to be more and more Christian, is a very useful key when reading much of Auden's poetry.
Auden too would have come to identify with Samuel Johnson's saying: "To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example." For thirty-three years, starting with his 'rediscovery' of Christianity, Auden attended High Church worship, mainly at his Episcopal parish church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, New York City. He once said that "The truth is Catholic, but the search for it is Protestant." It is difficult to imagine a Roman Catholic expressing this view, and not that many Protestants either; but it is perfectly possible to imagine an Anglican seeing this as a ground rule. Furthermore, a position that is at once based in a common, agreed certainty while permitting a constant searching after the truth explains a great deal about the great intellectual impetus, range and originality of Auden's poetry.
4. Bohemianism versus Bourgeois Domesticity
When Auden goes to New York he lives what would be called a bohemian lifestyle. He shares a house with people like the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, the musician Benjamin Britten, the writers Carson MacCullers, Richard Wright, Paul and Jane Bowles. What a crowd! Certainly his domestic situation by all reports was chaotic, with a kitchen full of unwashed plates and utensils, and rooms piled high with books and papers. He is also part of what today we would call the gay scene, with all the campery behaviour and necessary special social codes that went with that territory. It is an adult world and a long way from England. He encourages in others the breaking of restraints that harm and limit creativity or that bring psychological damage. He goes to Ischia in the Mediterranean to extend this frantic playful existence of sensuality and literary effervescence.
Auden's take on Christian teaching and practice can be seen everywhere in his work. 'Horae Canonicae' is one of the most overt testaments to his beliefs. Auden knew that the canonical hours are explicit in the arrangement of The Book of Common Prayer, yet his title reminds us that we are talking about the Breviary of the Divine Office, used in its Latin form since at least the time of St. Benedict (6th cent.). By the 1950s Auden needs more than ever routine and stability in order to get the work done. He starts making pronouncements about how "Bohemia won't do, my dear." By the time he leaves Ischia to buy a house in the Austrian town of Kirchstetten near Vienna, he has established a daily life that is even more time-conscious than a Benedictine's. So that in Auden, both in the life and the work, we must be aware in him of strong but contradictory forces: between bohemianism on the one hand and bourgeois domesticity on the other; between the desire to shock and surprise on one side and the desire for respectability and general social acceptance on the other; between what is counter-cultural and original even dangerous on the one hand and what is culturally normative, traditional and even cosy on the other hand.
The poems in 'Horae Canonicae' are about ordering the day. They also state that in any day we are both alone and together in the process of living. Dailiness has become accepted, even dailiness that must of very necessity involve the witness to sacrifice and loss. Auden recognises in the Hours of the Benedictines the structure that humans must put on their existence to make it liveable and meaningful.
5. Auden in old age
When I was growing up it was thought that middle age was 35 years old, but this seems to have changed in the past couple of decades and is now more like 55. This is worth keeping in mind when we consider that Auden died in old age at 66 years. What is old age?
In the last ten years or so of his life we see a deepening of what for Auden is a matter of supreme interest: we are all individual humans, our own persons. He tries for completer expression of what it is to be human. Here I want to warn against the idea that this is just some effort at celebrating our 'common humanity'. He is not interested in such platitudes. He is interested in how it is we are human and how we can, through our own wills, become less human or more human. He has learnt how easy it can be for others to become fascist, how easy it is for people not to question such things. He had to find another way. He keenly studies new discoveries — scientific, technological, psychological, neurological, literary — and asks, what does this mean for being human? The results are poetry.
When we read poetry we want to know what it means, but this is not the most important question. What we have to ask is, why was this written? Where is this coming from? How does it speak? How does it speak to me? The lines I have just quoted from 'Talking to Myself' enact a monologue the poet is having with his own body. With Auden I think a root cause of poetry is this desire to understand how God's creatures love and understand themselves and the world. We can be sure he is not a Manichean: in another poem of this period he discusses with fascination all the microbes that his body keeps alive and that keep him alive. When he studies his ageing flesh he is fascinated by all the good that it can do, by the fact that each of us lives as a self inside this amazing human form.
If for Auden one of the main tasks in life is to love our neighbours as ourselves, then understanding better who our neighbours are is an important exercise. He wishes to share his findings with the rest of us.
In the last years Auden lives an increasingly lonely life. His lifelong partner Chester Kallman stays most of the time in Europe when Auden is in New York. Auden writes poems about the mice he befriends in his New York flat. For me, one of the signs of this isolation in the writing is the excited use of obscure English words that he fishes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which was in a permanent place before him in the room wherever he wrote poetry.
Every decade of the 20th century was one of great cultural change. Those biographers who write about Auden in the 1960s lived through it and choose to see him as out of step with the times, lost in the new world of personal freedom and excess. Whereas I think that Auden was a contemporary, a vital and important presence in the period. But curiously, when we turn to the main theme of this paper it's a mixed story.
Liturgical change was a significant part of church life in the 1960s, something Auden found difficult to cope with. Although he actually assisted in an advisory capacity with some of the changes to wording at his own church of St Mark's-in-the-Bowery, he at the end started going to the Greek Orthodox Church in New York because he said that he wanted a liturgy that was "timeless". It needs to be understood, this doesn't mean Auden left the Anglican Church, only that his need for a traditional worship that he could relate to was a huge incentive: this is something we have seen in Auden since he was a child. Late in his life he would say, "I like to think that if I hadn't been a poet, I might have become an Anglican bishop — politically liberal, I hope; theologically and liturgically conservative, I know."
6. What is poetry?
Lazy literati love to quote one of Auden's most famous lines: 'Poetry makes nothing happen.' I say 'lazy literati' because the line is used as an excuse for not having much to do with poetry, it's dismissive, it sees this whole business as peripheral to the main deal, whatever that is. The thinking goes that if Auden thinks that poetry makes nothing happen, then who are we to argue? Also, it sounds impressive and is no doubt a good starter for seminars and book clubs.
But this is not what Auden meant. The line is from an elegy to W. B. Yeats and is saying that no matter what we do about poetry "Ireland has her madness and her weather still," in other words Yeats's work has not changed certain social problems or climatic conditions, which we will always have. The line is written after his experience of the Spanish Civil War. Englishmen like Auden went to Spain in the belief that their words and actions really could make a difference to the course of events. They didn't. The line itself expresses not so much disillusion at that expectation as realism about how poetry can possibly hope to influence politics. Readings of this line proliferate. There is a metaphysical reading of the line: poetry is an affirmation of the internalising strength of poetry: it can delineate the soul. It is a koan: poetry makes 'nothing' happen. The koan itself may become ironical, as we read the decades of proliferation of readings of this line and ask mockingly, poetry makes nothing happen?
The lazy literati don't quote the other definitions in the verse:
I like the idea of a poem flowing south down the page, though clearly Auden also means that poetry (indeed all our important words) are native and come to life as they move from one place to the next and that we will have them, whatever. Though we're told they make nothing happen, they are a way of happening, they meet a need, they live inside those who take them up and remember. Poetry is a mouth, that is our individual speech, which is carried on and effects meaning.
In the Yeats elegy Auden is questioning the absolute or hallowed or romantic ideas about the poet that existed at the time and that were epitomised in the public idolising of Yeats himself, an idolising that Yeats did little to deter. I would argue that this ironic subversion inside the elegy is Christian, it attacks the self-importance of the poet. While honouring the artistic process and the value of art, Auden undermines the concept of poetry as some absolute. He is also saying to himself and others, who cares about poetry? What is its importance? The larger indifference of the public to poetry, whether in England or America, is a matter about which Auden is intensely aware.
It is hard today to recall that in that time there were those who argued for poetry as a means to personal salvation, and that it offered alternative visions or answers to the pragmatic problems of existence, including political and economic problems. Auden wouldn't have any of this. For him, individual salvation is a very important question, but one quite separate from Works, including the Works of the creative human. He is already heading towards faith as an explanation for how to live. Also, although he spends a lifetime writing poetry about economics and politics, he has removed himself from those who extol literature as a game-changer; for him this is ultimately delusory.
This role for the poet is described, again not without irony, in that incredible poem 'In praise of limestone':
We notice here that the poet is in an inescapable bind with his poem and that he is making myths or fictions even as he tries to deny them.
And in conclusion, without comment, here are some lines from 'Thanksgiving for a Habitat' (we don't need to ask who is he giving thanks to) and the poem 'The Cave of Making', words about the room where we create things like poems, dedicated to his friend Louis MacNeice: