Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Birthday: Asked by a censorious type, "Are you a Christian?" Auden replied, "I'm trying."


Today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of W.H. Auden. I posted this last May for the seventieth anniversary of his becoming an American citizen.

It’s a gladsome day for American letters, The Writer’s Almanac reminds us:

On this day in 1946, English-born poet W.H. Auden became a U.S. citizen. Auden began writing poetry in high school, studied at Oxford, and made friends with other writers, including Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. He published Poems (1930), a collection of poetry that brought him renown as a writer.

He traveled widely during the following years, visiting Germany, Iceland, and China. He served in the Spanish Civil War, but was so disturbed by the destruction of Roman Catholic churches that he returned to England. He married Thomas Mann's daughter, Erika, in 1935 to help her escape Nazi Germany, though the two had never met. Much of his work during this time focused on political unrest and economic issues.

The central focus of Auden's work switched from politics to religion when he moved to the United States in 1939. It was also in the U.S. that he met his lover Chester Kallman. While their sexual relationship only lasted two years, they remained friends and occasional housemates for the rest of their lives. Auden dedicated two collections of poetry to Kallman.

Between 1940 and 1941, he shared a house in New York with other artists, including the writer Carson McCullers and the composer Benjamin Britten. He also began reading Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr and his interest in Christianity deepened. He joined the Episcopal Church in 1940, returning to a religious tradition he left behind as a young boy.

He volunteered to go back to England and serve in the army when war broke out, but was told that, at 32, he was too old. He taught English at the University of Michigan, was drafted into the U.S. Army but dismissed on medical grounds, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942-43 but didn't use it. He taught at Swarthmore between 1942 and 1945. He visited Germany after the war to study the effects of the Allied bombing on German morale. He returned to Manhattan, worked as a freelance writer, lectured at The New School, and taught occasionally at Bennington and Smith.

His writings on religion continued to evolve, moving from highly personal explorations of Protestantism to interest in the Roman Catholic focus on the body and ritual. He studied the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who explored religion and the significance of human suffering.

In later years, Auden lived on a farm in Austria, teaching interstitially at Oxford and writing for The New Yorker and other magazines. He died in Vienna in 1973.

He said, "It's a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it."

The survival of any poet’s work for long is a miracle in an age that has forgotten the transcendence of verse, doubly so in nations whose political classes include those who intelligence as a disability and non-trade school employment as parasitism (the Australian government’s war on domestic publishing, and its campaign to actually reduce author’s intellectual property rights, is a classic model). Yet Auden goes from strength to strength in his native and adopted lands. Millions discovered him anew after John Hannah’s recitation of “Funeral Blues” in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994):

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Another of his works, “September 1, 1939,” won renewed awareness after the disasters of 9/11.

Alan Jacobs, writing in 2001 for the Anglo-Catholic political journal, First Things, offered a lengthy, and insightful, appreciation of the depth of Auden’s wrestlings with his religious belief and its application to his times. Equally thoughtful is Jacobs’ consideration of why Auden is not better appreciated among other believers:

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,
I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them,
Nor can I see a reason why you should.

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 jongleur 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.
Meanwhile, a silence on the cross
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

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 do what it seems to us we were made for/look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective."

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