Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: auden (page 1 of 3)

St. Mark’s Place

The Five Spot

The Five Spot, on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, hosted most of the great jazz musicians of the middle part of the twentieth century — Charles Mingus, for instance:

It was also a block-and-a-half from 77 St. Mark’s Place, which is where for a long time Auden lived for about half of each year. (Leon Trotsky also lived there for a time, and a section of the street provided the image for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.) I often find myself wondering how often Auden passed Miles Davis or John Coltrane on the street, or sat next to them at a local bar.

Photograph of AUDEN on St. Mark's Place by Richard Avedon

Wystan and Erika

Erika Mann WH Auden.

The couple above are W. H. Auden and Erika Mann. The photo was taken by a student at The Downs School, where Auden was then teaching. Erika, the daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann and an ardent opponent of Nazism, had been living in England but was in imminent danger of being repatriated to Germany. To prevent that from happening, Auden agreed to marry her. (Both were gay and not otherwise interested in matrimony.) On June 15, 1935 they were married in Ledbury, a town near the school. This photo was taken around that time, perhaps even on their wedding day.

Thomas and Katia Mann were very worried about Erika’s safety: had she been repatriated, a lengthy prison term was the best that she could have hoped for, especially since on her mother’s side she was of Jewish descent. Thomas and Katia were themselves safely on their way to New York City, traveling by ocean liner, when, on June 16, they received a terse and to-the-point telegram:


Eventually the Mann family would be reunited in America, and Erika and Klaus would write a book about their deliverance from Nazism.

Mann erika klaus escape to life.

In January of 1939, Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood arrived in New York City and were greeted at the pier by Erika and Klaus. They all drove down to Princeton to meet Papa and Mama Mann, and Life magazine sent a photographer to capture a family photo:

Carl mydans christopher isherwood and w.h. auden with thomas mann and his family at mann home, princeton, nj.

A happy reunion!

Wystan and Erika never divorced, so for decades Auden got to enjoy making jokes about “my father-in-law.” When Erika died in 1969 some of the obituaries noted that she was survived by her husband, the poet W. H. Auden — a piece of information that came as rather a shock to some of her friends, and his.

All that said, after their marriage Auden was very eager for his parents to meet Erika and insisted that she travel to Birmingham with him so they could receive the parental blessing. (“My husband is a tyrant,” Erika sighed in a letter to a friend, not thinking Birmingham a sufficiently interesting or beautiful city to make a visit worthwhile.) They remained friends always, and Isherwood thought that later there was even “a touch of eroticism” to their relationship. So to call it a “marriage of convenience” is perhaps not to tell the whole truth.

Auden, fifty years later

Auden Getty

W. H. Auden died fifty years ago today.

He is the single most important writer and thinker in my life, and has been ever since, in my very last class in graduate school, I read his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand. (Though it’s more than a collection of essays: it’s Auden’s Ars Poetica or Biographia Literaria.) The prose led me to the poetry and then there was no going back.

I wrote my first book (a book that had a peculiar route to publication) about Auden, featured him as one of the central figures in my The Year of Our Lord 1943, and have now produced three critical editions of his books: The Age of Anxiety, For the Time Being, and (forthcoming) The Shield of Achilles

Some of my essays and reviews about Auden available online: 

He was, shall we say, quite a character, and the anecdotes about him — about his titanic messiness and equally exceptional kindness — may readily be found. I do wish I had known him personally, but his work is so filled with his distinctive personality that I always feel that I do.  

Auden has done more than anyone else to help me understand what it means to be a Christian in my own moment — one neither hankering after a vague Utopia or pining for an illusory lost Arcadia. In poetry and prose alike, he has given me great pleasure and inexhaustible food for thought. One of the great themes of his work is the necessity and the blessing of gratitude, and thus he has been my primary instructor in how to be grateful. Today, especially, I am grateful for him. 

Auden on Ischia

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I’m in the final stages of editing my critical edition of Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, and I’m finding myself thinking often about Ischia, the island in the Bay of Naples where he lived when he wrote most of the poems in the volume. The more time I spend with those poems the more I am struck by the role the island — its geography, history, and culture — played in shaping them. I’ve never been there, and while I’m not the kind of guy to have a travel “bucket list,” I’m thinking that I need to find a way to visit. And after all, I think it’s fair to say that the island is not without its own charm, regardless of Auden. 

Things to see in Ischia Italy

This isn’t quite right: Auden would never have been named Poet Laureate even if his comic/pornographic poem about a blow job hadn’t existed. He was widely loathed in England, as I explain early in this piece, because he stayed in the U.S., where he had arrived in January 1939, when war broke out in September. And then in 1946 he became an American citizen, which surely would have ruled out any such honor. (Imagine someone writing poems for British public occasions who wasn’t a subject of the Queen!) Any commentary on the “filthy” poem was just one more whack on a long-dead horse. 

All that said, Auden would’ve loved being Poet Laureate. He enjoyed to an extreme degree writing poems for particular occasions — when giving his inaugural address as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry, in 1956, he said, “I should be feeling less uneasy at this moment than I do, if the duties of the Professor of Poetry were to produce, as occasion should demand, an epithalamium for the nuptials of a Reader in Romance Languages, an elegy on a deceased Canon of Christ Church, a May-day Masque for Somerville or an election ballad for his successor. I should at least be working in the medium to which I am accustomed.” He often said that any real poet could write a good poem on any subject when asked. Only amateurs and incompetents have to wait for “inspiration.” 

Forthcoming: The Shield of Achilles

I will be returning soon to my posts on Augustine’s City of God, but maybe not for another week or so, because I need to devote my full attention to the final edits of my forthcoming critical edition of Auden’s collection The Shield of Achilles — my most recent contribution to Princeton University Press’s Auden Critical Editions series. I will admit to being very excited about this project. Though things may change, below please see my Preface in its current form.  

The Shield of Achilles appeared in 1955, which for Auden was right on time: he tended to publish a collection of poems every five years or so, and the previous book, Nones, had appeared in 1951. The poems of Nones indicated the beginnings of a major transition in his work. Through the first half of the 1940s he had written long poems in which he worked through the implications of his newfound Christian faith for politics and history (For the Time Being), for art (The Sea and the Mirror), and for the psyches of people devastated by war and by the various dislocations of modernity (The Age of Anxiety). But in the major poems in Nones Auden began a reckoning with certain themes that, he came to realize, he had neglected: the embodied life that humans share with all other creatures, and the character of genuine human community.

That he spent much of his time in these years living on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, around people whose language he knew imperfectly and whose habits he struggled to share, in a country that reminded him constantly of the complex relationship between Rome’s empire and the great claims of the Christian faith, exercised a powerful influence on the course of his thinking. To Ischia he wrote, in 1948 when he was new there,

                    How well you correct
Our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see
               Things and men in perspective
          Underneath your uniform light.

If in Nones Auden inaugurated his new quest to “see / Things and men in perspective,” in The Shield of Achilles he provides a powerful report on the fruits of that quest. It is the boldest and most intellectually assured work of his career, an achievement that has not been sufficiently acknowledged, in large part because its poetic techniques are not easily perceived or assessed. It is the most unified of all Auden’s collections, and indeed — once its intricate principles of organization are grasped — may be seen as the true successor of those long poems of the 1940s.   

Cities 4: Secondary Epic

My previous post discussed the way Augustine sets up his City of God as antithetical to the Aeneid. Auden’s witty poem “Secondary Epic” may be seen as a kind of pendant to Augustine’s critique. It focuses not on the prophetic narration of Anchises in Book VI, but rather on a complementary moment, the description in Book VIII of the Shield of Aeneas. About this description Auden has some questions:    

How was your shield-making god to explain
Why his masterpiece, his grand panorama
Of scenes from the coming historical drama
Of an unborn nation, war after war,
All the birthdays needed to pre-ordain
The Octavius the world was waiting for,
Should so abruptly, mysteriously stop,
What cause could he show why he didn’t foresee
The future beyond 31 B.C.,
Why a curtain of darkness should finally drop
On Carians, Morini, Gelonians with quivers,
Converging Romeward in abject file,
Euphrates, Araxes and similar rivers
Learning to flow in a latinate style,
And Caesar be left where prophecy ends,
Inspecting troops and gifts for ever?
Wouldn’t Aeneas have asked: — ‘What next?
After this triumph, what portends?’ 

And then the poem concludes, returning to Anchises: 

No, Virgil, no:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
Your Anchises isn’t convincing at all:
It’s asking too much of us to be told
A shade so long-sighted, a father who knows
That Romulus will build a wall,
Augustus found an Age of Gold,
And is trying to teach a dutiful son
The love of what will be in the long run,
Would mention them both but not disclose
(Surely no prophet could afford to miss,
No man of destiny fail to enjoy
So clear a proof of Providence as this)
The names predestined for the Catholic boy
Whom Arian Odovacer will depose. 

The names of that “Catholic boy”? Romulus Augustulus. What poet could resist the irony

Auden borrows the title of his poem from A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which C. S. Lewis distinguishes primary epic — poems like the Iliad and Beowulf that show no obvious awareness that what they’re doing is, you know, epic — from secondary epic, which is always aware of its tradition its inheritance. Poems like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost are always gesturing towards their predecessors to make sure you know they are indeed epics. Secondary epics tend therefore to be at least somewhat polemical, in tension with their predecessors, because after all if those predecessors has said everything and said it perfectly there would be no need for later poems. Virgil has therefore set himself up to make an argument through his narrative, an argument about the destiny of Rome and the nature of heroism, and Auden joins Augustine in pointing out that the argument doesn’t work: No poet writing in the midst of history can plausibly convince us that a historical city is eternal and that heroic service to it can therefore have eternal consequences. The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change. “No, Virgil, no.” 

summing up 1943

The following is the text of a talk I was supposed to give three years ago and didn’t because my back went out the day I was supposed to fly to the location of the meeting. Then I forgot about it. I just came across it the other day and decided that I may as well post it. 

The first thing to be said about the five figures I wrote my book about — oldest to youngest: Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil — is that they failed to do what they set out to do, which was to reshape the educational system of the Allied societies in a way that would both respect and form genuine persons.

The technocrats who won the war — the “engineers of victory” — reaped the spoils: that is, they got to dictate the shape of the postwar social order. As Auden put it, in “the other war” the sons of Apollo defeated the children of Hermes. The Hermetics did not altogether give up, mind you; but they became a force of guerilla resistance rather than a conquering army. So it goes.

The Christian humanists I wrote about — who formed an important sub-family of the children of Hermes — did not gain control over postwar society in large part because they were, to borrow a distinction made by Rebecca West, idiots rather than lunatics. That is a compliment, not an insult. Seriously faithful Christians tend to be on the idiot end of the idiot-lunatic spectrum, because they take seriously the task of tending the garden of faith that they have inherited. They are custodians, caretakers. It’s demanding work, and it can make one a little slow to notice the larger movements of society. That can be unfortunate at times, but it beats becoming the kind of lunatic who is always “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

The gardener of faith knows the history of the garden she tends. This gives her temporal bandwidth, and temporal bandwidth is directly proportionate to personal density. Without that temporal bandwidth you will be blown about by every wind of doctrine, because you don’t have the personal density to give you ballast. You’re light as a mote of dust.

The characters I wrote about had that temporal bandwidth, which not only made them attentive to the moral dimensions of the social and political choices facing them — each of them, it’s worth noting, understood the profound kinship that linked German National Socialism and Soviet communism — but also could see those choices in historical perspective, which gave them enormous diagnostic power. And we today are the beneficiaries of that power.


I could give many examples, but I will content myself with taking a brief look at Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. As explained briefly here, this was Auden’s first major work after he returned to the Christian faith of his childhood, and he sought in it to understand the public world into which he was born — and the Christian understanding of salvation history. In a sense, the poem is an attempt to unite the insights of two books that were very important to Auden at that time: Charles Norris Cochrane’s magisterial Christianity and Classical Culture and Charles Williams’s idiosyncratic Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Auden’s great initial insight, I believe, was that we today live in what one might call the Late Roman Empire, drawing with surprising directness on a 2000-year-old political inheritance that always stands in tension with the Christian Gospel. (I have written a bit about Cochrane’s importance for our time in these posts.) As Auden wrote in a review of Cochrane’s book,

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

“Spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” is a brilliantly incisive phrase, and suggestive of Auden’s next key insight: that to think in such terms is to agree to adjudicate the competing claims of the Lordship of Caesar and the Lordship of Christ on the ground of technological power. The key characteristic of Caesarism in the Late Roman Empire is Caesar’s control over the creation and deployment of technology, which is why the union of government and the financial sector and the big technology companies is the great Power — very much in a Pauline sense — of our moment.

The amazing thing, to me, is that Auden saw all this coming in 1942, as we can see from his poem’s great “Fugal Chorus”. It should be read with care. Notice that the Seven Kingdoms that Caesar has conquered are a series of reductions: the reduction of

  • Philosophy to semantics;
  • Causation to scientistic determinism;
  • Quantity to mechanical calculation;
  • Social relations to rational-choice economics;
  • The inorganic world to mechanical engineering;
  • Organic life to biotechnology;
  • Our inner lives to manipulation by propaganda.

And all of these reductive conquests are achieved through technological means. Auden did not manage to redirect the momentum of this comprehensive achievement, but he gave us tools with which we, in our time, may understand it and articulate our own response. He has provided tools that we can, and should, use to cultivate our gardens.

Another phrase for this is “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16) — buying it out of its bondage to the Powers. It is hard, slow work; not the kind of work that a lunatic is likely to have patience with. We should therefore be thankful for our disposition to idiocy. And perhaps we should also meditate on these words, with their echo of that Pauline phrase I have just quoted, from the last pages of Auden’s great poem:

To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

I’m sure you’re having a rough day, but consider this: You’re not spending it trying to read Auden’s handwriting.

Screenshot 2022 11 03 at 1 38 34 PM


Here’s a little offshoot of my work on Auden’s The Shield of Achilles.


This painting by Piero di Cosimo — see a larger version here — is called The Finding of Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos, but it wasn’t always called that. For a long time it was thought to represent the story of Hylas, the beautiful warrior and companion of Heracles who was abducted by nymphs. But, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky pointed out in his 1939 book Studies in Iconology, the image doesn’t really fit the story. Compare Piero’s painting with that of John William Waterhouse and you’ll see the difference: Waterhouse’s nymphs are clearly drawing Hylas into the water, in accordance with the myth, but Piero’s nymphs are doing something different: they’re helping a fallen youth get up from the ground. (Or, rather, one of them is: the others are looking on with curiosity, amusement, or concern, and talking about this odd stranger.) 

What’s going on here? To answer you have to go back to Homer: Iliad, Book I. There Hephaestus speaks to his mother Hera: 

You remember the last time I rushed to your defense? 
[Zeus] seized my foot, he hurled me off the tremendous threshold 
and all day long I dropped, I was dead weight and then, 
when the sun went down, down I plunged on Lemnos, 
little breath left in me. But the mortals there 
soon nursed a fallen immortal back to life. 

But “the mortals there” is not what Homer wrote; instead he wrote Σίντιες ἄνδρες, the “Sintian men.” The problem for later scholars is that nobody knows who the Sintian men were. Servius, a Latin grammarian and contemporary of Augustine of Hippo, wrote a learned commentary on Vergil in which he drew on that passage from Homer: Vulcano contigit, qui cum deformis esset et Iuno ei minime arrisisset, ab Iove est praecipitatus in insulam Lemnum. illic nutritus a Sintiis…. “Vulcan, because he was deformed and Juno did not smile on him, was hurled by Jove onto the island of Lemnos. There he was nurtured by the Sintii.”

This caused great confusion for scholars in the Renaissance for whom the word Sintii was meaningless. They therefore assumed, as learned philologists of that era were wont to assume, that some scribal error had occurred. Instead of nutritus a Sintiis Servius’s original text surely was nutritus absintiis, nurtured on wormwood. No, said others, it was nutritus ab simiis: He was nurtured by apes — and thus, we might say, a type of Tarzan. (Lord Greystoke, meet your ancestor Vulcan.) Boccaccio, in his enormously influential Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, accepted the Simian Hypothesis, and so evidence of it turns up in, for instance, an allegorical fresco, possibly by Cosmè Aura, in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara: 


See in the upper-left corner Vulcan’s forge, and, nearby, the apes pulling some kind of elaborate palanquin? 

But there was a third opinion — philologically the least convincing, surely, but artistically the most appealing: Servius’s text read nutritus ab nimphis — nurtured by nymphs. And that, Panofsky convincingly argued, is the reading Piero adopted. Those nymphs aren’t drawing Hylas into the water — there is no water — they’ve come running when they heard a big thump, or perhaps saw “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” and now they’re chattering away about this remarkable event as one of them helps the stunned but unharmed god to his feet. Poor little fellow. (He looks about two-thirds their size.) Some of the nymphs seem to find the whole thing funny, but in the end they’ll take good care of him. 

UPDATE: I’ve been corresponding with Adam Roberts about this and we’ve both been searching for the mysterious Sintians. The wonderful Sententiae Antiquae blog quotes from the Homeric scholia:

“[The Sintian men}: Philokhoros says that because they were Pelasgians they were called this because after they sailed to Brauron they kidnapped the women who were carrying baskets. For they call “harming” [to blaptein] sinesthai.

But Eratosthenes says that they have this name because they are wizards who discovered deadly drugs. Porphyry says that they were the first people to make weapons, the things which bring harm to men. Or, because they were the first to discover piracy.

This story of a god being raised by PIRATE WIZARDS sounds like the best idea for a fantasy novel I have ever heard.

Auden, nature, history

(A draft preface for my forthcoming edition of Auden’s book The Shield of Achilles, with some images and links that won’t be in the book.)

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In 1952, Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney, two recent graduates of Hunter College in New York City, started a company called Caedmon Records, with the goal of presenting the finest living poets reading their own work. They began with Dylan Thomas, who duly showed up in the studio with poems in hand – but only enough to fill one side of a record. Fortunately, he remembered that he had written a brief prose memoir that they could use to fill out the other side. Thanks largely to this casual inclusion of A Child’s Christmas in Wales the LP sold very well indeed and established the company’s reputation. The next year Cohen and Roney approached W. H. Auden, who entered a recording studio on 12 December 1953 to read enough poems to fill an LP. 

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His famous 1939 poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” was chosen to begin the record, but most of the poems Auden read were recently-written ones. The second poem on the first side is “In Praise of Limestone” (1948), which he describes, in the liner notes he wrote to accompany the record, as “a kind of prelude to the series of Bucolics on Side Two.” That he would think of this ambitious and complex poem as mere “prelude” says something about where his mind was at the time. The seven “Bucolics” fill the whole of Side Two, and his liner notes say that they “have in common the theme of the relation of man, as a historical, or history-making person, to nature.” 

Here’s Auden reading “Woods” — one of the “Bucolics” — in an unfortunately echoey space. (The Caedmon folks improved their recording techniques over the years.) Never forget: “A culture is no better than its woods.” 

This theme of our double lives — in a nature shared with the other creatures, in a history that those creatures cannot know — dominated Auden’s thoughts, and his verse, for a decade or more. On March 9, 1950, Auden visited Swarthmore College, where he had taught between 1942 and 1944, to deliver a lecture called “Nature, History and Poetry.” He had already given an almost identical lecture at Mount Holyoke College in January and at Fordham University in February, and would give it once more, on March 11, at Barnard College. Except at Barnard, he provided for the audience a typed, mimeographed handout featuring a poem he had recently written, “Prime,” and, curiously, two early drafts of that poem. The subject of his talk was the human experience of living in “natural time” but also in “historical time,” and how poetry might capture that twofold temporality. 

Auden gave four versions of the same talk not only because it enabled him to make more money with less work – though surely that was a factor – but also because the themes had risen to the point of obsession for him. (And again, not just recently: After reading “Prime” to the Swarthmore audience he says, “Actually this poem was written last August, in Italy, but a number of things go back much further than that.”) Nones, the collection of poems that Auden published in 1950, while it contains some of his finest poems, including “Prime,” is best understood as a kind of bridge between his long poems of the 1940s, which are focused almost wholly on the inner life, and the complex, resonant account of living-in-nature and living-in-history that he would achieve in this collection, The Shield of Achilles.

quote unquote

I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it. 

— W. H. Auden, 1966

excerpt from my Sent folder: “September 1, 1939”

In the end, I think, everything has worked out nicely; Auden performed the rite of renunciation that he needed, for internal reasons, to perform, and the poem remains, as it has always remained, widely available to readers. It’s worth remembering that he merely, from 1945 on, declined to include the poem in editions of his Collected Poems. Another Time, the book in which it appeared, remained in print; the poem has been anthologized a thousand times; no one who wants to read it has ever been prevented from doing so. In light of those facts, the level of controversy that his renunciation generates is rather fascinating, I find.

These beauties arrived: 


So now the set is complete: 


Had to do my review from PDFs, so this seems my just reward. 

The Love Feast

“The Love Feast“ — me in the new issue of Harper’s (paywalled, I think?) on the immediately forthcoming two volumes of Auden’s complete poems:

In almost every reading of Auden, the familiar hinge of his career remains visible — and indeed is emphasized in the division of these two volumes, the first of which ends in 1939 and the second of which begins in 1940. But thanks to [Edward] Mendelson, it is now generally seen to mark a transition, not from excellence to incompetence, but from one kind of excellence to another. And this way of viewing the transition is now typically accepted even by those, such as Heaney, who prefer the earlier verse and lament what was lost.

All the themes of Auden’s later verse converge on a rejection of the heroic and triumphal modes, and the substitution of a different register, that of the repeated and the mundane. In the second half of his career, Auden patiently worked out, in both prose and masterful verse, the implications of his homemade anthropology — his own account of what his friend Hannah Arendt would later call, in a 1958 book, The Human Condition. That anthropology ultimately centers on two core propositions: that we are prone to trust and love what breaks our hearts, and that we are creatures alongside the birds and the social insects, albeit creatures who, as he says in one poem, have “assumed responsibility for time.” We must live simultaneously in nature and history, though we forever are tempted by those prophets who tell us we can only take full refuge in one or the other. 

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Photograph of Auden by Irving Penn, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation 

Tolkien and Auden

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J. R. R. Tolkien and his wife Edith with their grandson Simon, at their home on Sandfield Road, Oxford, 1966. Photo from the Oxford Mail.

Tolkien was not an easy man to be friends with, as he himself knew. But relatively late in his life he became friends with the poet W. H. Auden, thanks to Auden’s reviews in the New York Times of the first and third volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Those came at a moment when the success of LOTR was by no means assured, and indeed those who hated the book — most notably Edmund Wilson — made a point of including Auden in their denigration. There were moments of tension later on, most notably when a London newspaper quoted Auden as having said that the decor of Tolkien’s home was “hideous”; and Tolkien — so it seems to me anyway — was never fully at ease with non-Catholics. But in the main the friendship remained firm, if rather distant, and was a source of pleasure and comfort to both men. When some medievalists produced a festschrift for Tolkien on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Auden contributed “A Short Ode to a Philologist”; and when Auden received a sixtieth birthday festschrift in the journal Shenandoah, Tolkien offered a lovely tribute, “For W.H.A.,” in both Anglo-Saxon and modern English. 

You can read about their relationship in the biographies that Humphrey Carpenter wrote about each man, and also in Tolkien’s letters. But it seems to me that the relationship is interesting enough that it deserves some kind of artful presentation; perhaps one that portrays their friendship as more intimate than it really was. And I have always been haunted by the fact that, though Tolkien was fifteen years older than Auden, they died within a few weeks of each other: Tolkien in Bournemouth on September 2, 1973, and Auden in Vienna on September 29. 

So I wrote a short play about them

There I imagine a conversation between them — taking place probably in 1967, though don’t try to pin me down about that — a conversation based on things they actually said to each other, usually in letters, and things they said or wrote on matters of mutual interest. That is, Auden really did invent a parlor game called Purgatory Mates, and Tolkien really did say that Auden’s proposal to write a book about him was “an impertinence.” Auden’s final words in the play are based on an encounter he had with the young Jay Parini. And so on. So, the play is Based on True Events and Words, even though I seriously doubt that they ever would have had a face-to-face conversation like this. Auden had become by this point in his life too garrulous, and Tolkien too mumblingly reticent. (In both cases excessive alcohol consumption played a part.) So I had to make Auden more shortly-spoken than he was in real life, and Tolkien more articulate. 

Anyway, it’s probably really terrible, but I enjoyed writing it. It scratched an itch. 



We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them. 

— W. H. Auden 

editing tools

The kind of work I’m doing right now — my critical edition of Auden’s book The Shield of Achilles — is somewhat unusual, but some readers might be interested in the tools I’m using to get it done.

The first thing I did was to go to AbeBooks and order four copies of early editions of the book, two of the American edition (Random House) and two of the British (Faber). These need to be scrupulously compared for differences.

I selected one of them — the earliest, which means an American edition (the book came out here several months before it did in the U.K.) — and made it my working copy. Before annotating it, I took photos of every page of the book. Then I went through the book with a highlighter, marking every word or phrase that I believe will require annotation.

I grabbed a pencil and, on the pages and on sticky notes, made initial comments on ideas that need to go into my Introduction, calling attention to related passages.

Then I returned to the photos of the text. I opened the Photos app on my Mac, navigated to the photo of the first page, and typed the keyboard shortcut I use to invoke TextSniper. TextSniper is a fabulous app. When you invoke it you get an area-selection tool. Draw a rectangle around any text on your screen and TextSniper OCRs the text and copies it to your clipboard. There are other ways I could do this: for instance, I could scan the book into a PDF and then use an app like PDFpen to OCR the whole text. But that brings in a lot of extraneous material, for instance anything in the pages’ headers and footers. With TextSniper I get precisely the text I want — and it is the most accurate OCR tool I have ever used, by a long shot. So Photos to TextSniper to BBEdit — and very shortly I had a complete text of the book to work from.

Next: Markup — in Markdown. In this case basically headings and italics — pretty simple work that only took a few minutes. I went from a bunch of digital photos to a clean, accurate working text in little more than half an hour.

As soon as you start the work of textual editing you need to generate comments (about formatting, for instance) and queries for the eventual copy editor. And since Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of publishing, I therefore had to convert my Markdown file to Word. Most of the time I use pandoc for such conversions, but I find that Brett Terpstra’s Marked does a better job of preserving line breaks — and a book of poems has a lot of line breaks.

(So why not just paste the OCR’d text directly into Word, instead of using a text file as the intermediate stage? Because, as you surely know, structuring text in Word is a nightmare. You try to turn one line into a header and Word decides to make the next paragraph part of the header and change the typeface of the previous paragraph. And then you can’t figure out how to fix it. A plain-text file structured with Markdown is precise. My primary governing rule of writing and text-editing: Never open Word until you absolutely have to.)

Okay, so then I had my accurate, ready-to-be-annotated text in a Word file. Which left me with one final workflow problem to solve: adding the annotations, which in the published edition will appear at the end of the text. There are several ways to do this, involving split screens or external monitors or even second computers. But here’s what I did: I got out my little-used iPad and connected it to my MacBook Air with Sidecar. Now I can look at the Word file of the book’s text on the iPad and add annotations in BBEdit on the Mac. Baby, I got a stew going!


Dear reader, I’m sure you have a tough job, but reflect on this: You don’t have to try to decipher Auden’s handwriting. 


Collett’s England

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One of Auden’s favorite books was Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England (1926), and it’s easy to see why — it’s absolutely delightful. Here’s a passage from the chapter seen above: 

It is curious to see how floods restore the ancient aspect of the valley landscape, by overflowing the modern chequer-work of fences and hedges, and showing where floods held the field before. Only new houses are flooded when Thames or Medway, or any stream of the populous half-urban valleys, breaks bounds. Bungalows become uninhabitable, swans cruise through rose-beds, but the old farmhouses stand securely dryshod, though scarcely fifty yards from the insurgent water, and perched on so slight a rise as to be invisible until the water came. Old farms and cottages were built with exact knowledge, from experience and tradition, of how far the flood would reach. New houses are plumped down into the channels by which the river disgorges, as though it would never return. 

And a luminous passage from another chapter, on Epping Forest

Yet even in England, woods with a touch of the terror of infinity still survive; and it is one of the strangest things about Epping Forest that, for all its nearness to the East End of London, and its permeation from end to end with the noise of traffic, it yields not only a hundred delightful pictures of the cheerful greenwood, but one or two of the more ancient and formidable type. From the hamlet of Baldwin’s Hill, near Loughton — red omnibuses run close behind it — there is a view across a narrow valley to a flank of the forest rising, beech beyond beech, hornbeam beyond hornbeam, pollarded and rounded, and innumerable as sheep streaming downhill to water, which is full of the true forest sense. Those who walk in the forest soon learn that the great road to Epping and the eastern counties is never a mile away, and that the air is seldom empty of its rumour. But while the ear tells continually of London, the eye carries us far back into Shakespeare’s age, and the old time beyond. Dull streets cease abruptly at the forest’s edge; the bell of the muffin-man echoes on autumn afternoons among the beech-boles hacked by spotted woodpeckers. Silence falls a moment, and we hear the deer belling in the glades; it is one step from Bethnal Green into Broceliande.

When, in the 1930s, Auden was teaching at The Downs School, he decided that the students should perform a musical, so he wrote the lyrics, composed the music, and directed it. One of the lyrics goes like this: 

I’ve the face of an angel 
I’ve got round blue eyes 
And if you knew the things I do 
It would cause you some surprise 
But when ignorance is bliss my dears 
It’s folly to be wise 

Yet the noble despair of the poets
Is nothing of the sort; it is silly
To refuse the tasks of time
And, overlooking our lives,
Cry — “Miserable wicked me,
How interesting I am.”
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die. 

— Malin, in The Age of Anxiety 

plus ça change

Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations, to pay taxes, to vote for the best man or programme, to serve as jurymen, to write letters of protest against this or that act of injustice or vandalism, but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures.

— Auden in Encounter (April 1954)


One of the most fundamental ideas that Auden held in the 1950s — the period of his career that I’m working on right now — was that “pluralities” of people come in three kinds. From an essay called “Nature, History, and Poetry” (published in Thought in 1950), with bold type added by me: 

  1. “A crowd consists of n members where n > 1, whose sole characteristic in common is togetherness. A crowd loves neither itself nor anything other than itself. It can only be counted; its existence is chimerical.” 
  2. “A society consists of x members, i.e. a certain finite number, united in a specific manner into a whole with a characteristic mode of behavior which is different from the behavior of its several members in isolation (e.g. a molecule of water or a string quartet). A society has a definite size, a specific structure and an actual existence.” 
  3. “A community consists of n members, all of them rational beings united by a common love for something other than themselves.” 

The tragedy of social media is this: Each given social-media platform consists of a crowd pretending to be either a society or a community. 


In his brief 1949 book The Enchaféd Flood, Auden writes of what happens when communities — gatherings of persons bound together (Auden does not quote Augustine here but is silently citing him) by a common love — deteriorate into societies — collections of human organisms defined by their social and economic function. One of his touchstone texts in writing about these matters is Moby Dick.

If a community so dissolves, the societies, which remain so long as human beings wish to remain alive, must, left to themselves, grow more and more mechanical. And such real individuals as are left must become Ishmael’s “isolatos, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each isolato living in a separate continent of his own.”

(I’ve adjusted the spelling from “isolatoe” to avoid annoyance.) Auden goes on to make an unexpected and profoundly illuminating connection: “The grand explanatory image of this condition is of course Dürer’s Melancholia.”

608px Melencolia I Durero


She sits unable to sleep and yet unable to work, surrounded by unfinished works and unused tools, the potential fragments of the city which she has the knowledge but not the will to build…

What is the cause of her suffering? That, surrounded by every possibility, she cannot find within herself or without the necessity to realise one rather than another. Urban society is, like the desert, a place without limits. The city walls of tradition, mythos and cultus have crumbled. There is no direction in which Ishmael is forbidden or forcibly prevented from moving. The only outside “necessities” are the random whims of fashion or the lifeless chains of a meaningless job, which, so long as he remains an individual, he can and will reject. At the same time, however, he fails to find a necessity within himself to take their place.

Earlier in his exposition Auden had drawn on Kierkegaard to describe those more common figures whose response to a lack of community is not to descend into melancholy but rather to accept their roles in a featureless “public” — Kierkegaard in The Present Age: “a public is a kind of gigantic something, an abstract and deserted void which is everything and nothing” — or to join some crowd, a crowd which might descend into a mob. These people are saved from melancholy by passively accepting the anonymity of the public or by attaching their anomie to the will of the crowd. As Auden wrote in an essay, “A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.”

On Good Friday, Auden wrote elsewhere, the crowd cried “Crucify him!” But that crucifixion was also enabled by those who shouted nothing but merely averted their eyes from the disagreeable spectacle.

The person deprived of a community who cannot, for whatever temperamental reasons, join the crowd or disappear into the public will inevitably become a melancholic “isolato.” Isolation, anonymous absorption of the self into some abstract social function, the madness of crowds — those are the three chief options for people who are deprived of genuine community.

The question then becomes: By what means might we achieve the restoration of community that will protect us from these dark fates?

It is important that Auden links both Ishmael’s condition and Dürer’s image of Melancholia with the failure of the city: For him what matters most about the unused tools scattered at the melancholiac’s feet, and perhaps also the geometric and mathematical images elsewhere in the print, are what they say about a built environment that has not been built, which indicates not only a loss of imagination and creativity but a failure to construct, which is, among other things, a failure to protect one’s community from natural and social enemies.

Hovering behind these expressed thoughts, I believe, is an ongoing meditation on the Aeneid. When Aeneas and his crew are shipwrecked on the Libyan coast and make their way to Carthage, Aeneas’s first words on seeing that city are “O fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt!” — Fortunate are those whose walls already rise — because he is impatient to raise the walls of the city he is pledged to found as a second Troy. But soon enough that impatience, coupled with love for Dido and grief for his lost city and wife, has him directing Carthaginian construction crews, something which Mercury, sent down by Jupiter, fiercely denounces: “tu nunc Karthaginis altae / fundamenta locas pulchramque uxorius urbem / exstruis?” So for love of this new wife of yours you’re building this pleasant city of Carthage? Instead of the one you’ve been commanded by the gods to build?

It looks like work that Aeneas is doing, but it’s not: Mercury says he’s wasting time, idling away the hours. The god thinks it’s love that keeps him in Carthage, but that’s not it, or not chiefly: it’s primarily a kind of structured procrastination born of melancholy.

Just three years before writing the lectures that became The Enchaféd Flood, Auden had held a temporary commission in the U. S. Army (rank: Major) and had participated in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany — note the initials in the background of this photo:

Think of the ruination Auden saw, and think of the great task of Aeneas, and you will grasp the import of this passage from the conclusion of those lectures:

We live in a new age … in which the heroic image is not the nomad wanderer through the desert or over the ocean, but the less exciting figure of the builder, who renews the ruined walls of the city. Our temptations are not theirs. We are less likely to be tempted by solitude into Promethean pride: we are far more likely to become cowards in the face of the tyrant who would compel us to lie in the service of the False City. It is not madness we need to flee but prostitution.

Aeneas’s melancholy — his anomie, his ennui — has led him to prostitute himself to a city other than his own: literally Carthage, but metaphorically and spiritually what Auden calls “the False City.” A city built on comforting but deadly lies; a city which might, at its very best, offer some kind of society but never genuine community. Aeneas has escaped from the dark fate of the “isolato”; but he has done so by being absorbed into a public that is not his own.

What are the virtues, what is the disposition, of the builder of the True City? How might someone be formed to possess the proper disposition? I think we know what the impediments are — That’s surely an iPad in the lap of the putto in Melancholia: he’s obviously pissed off by some jerk’s tweet — but what are the affordances?

That’s Auden in his USSBS days, in late 1945, visiting the ruins of Nuremberg (photo scanned from this book). I’ve highlighted something curious at the center-right of the image. It’s a statue that by some miracle survived the bombing which, as you can see, completely devastated the rest of the city center. The statue depicts Albrecht Dürer.

Auden on education in America

Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s book Notes towards the Definition of Culture, W. H. Auden identifies what he believes to be the distinctively “American problem” in transmitting culture from one generation to the next. After noting that few of the 19th-century immigrants to the United States “were conscious bearers of their native culture and few had many memories they wish to preserve,” because they came primarily in order to escape persecution and poverty, he continues,

This, in the absence of any one dominant church has placed almost the whole cultural burden on the school, which has had to struggle along as best it could with all too little help from even the family…. I have never understood how a liberal, of all people, can regard State education as anything but a necessary and – it is to be hoped – temporary evil. The only ground for approval that I can see is the authoritarian ground that Plato gives – that it is the only way to ensure orthodoxy…. It is almost impossible for education organized on a massive scale not to imitate the methods that work so well in the mass production of goods.

The greatest blessing that could descend on Higher Education in this country would be not the erection of more class barriers but the removal of one: namely, the distinction drawn between those who have attended college and those who have not. As long as employers demand a degree for jobs to which a degree is irrelevant, the colleges will be swamped by students who have no disinterested level of knowledge, and teachers, particularly in the humanities, aware of the students economic need to pass examinations, will lower their standards to let them.

The New Yorker, 23 April 1949.

The Shield of Achilles

I’ve prepared two critical editions of long poems by Auden: The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (originally published in 1947) and For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (originally published in 1944). I love this kind of job.

It requires patient and thorough archival work — Auden’s notebooks and manuscripts are scattered in several locations, but the work he did after his move to America is largely held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas — and meticulous attentiveness to variations in published work. This latter is especially important for Auden, who was an inveterate reviser.

Then, once you have established the text, you have to annotate it carefully — not the easiest thing with a poet as learnedly allusive as Auden — and provide a synoptic introduction that will make difficult poetry comprehensible to its readers without inserting your own personality and preferences.

And maybe that’s what I like best about textual editing, and especially the preparation of a critical edition: Not one element of the job is about me. It’s completely focused on Auden, and on connecting him to his readers and potential readers. And then there’s this: Not one of the monographs I have written will last nearly as long as these editions will.

So I am extremely pleased to say that I am going to be editing another book of Auden’s — though this one will be a rather different enterprise. This time it’s not a long poem, but, in a first for the Auden Critical Editions series, a collection of lyric poems, The Shield of Achilles (1955). This is worth doing because of all Auden’s collections — counting them is complicated, but there are around ten — The Shield of Achilles is the most carefully organized and internally coherent. Individual lyrics, including the great title poem, sit in the middle of the collection, bookended by two magnificent sequences, “Bucolics” and “Horae Canonicae.” Teasing out the complex relations among these texts, and understanding the whole that they make, will be challenging but deeply enjoyable.

I am able to commence this task thanks to the invitation of Edward Mendelson, Auden’s best critic, literary executor, and editor of his complete works, and to the agreement of the fine folks at Princeton University Press. This will be my fourth time working with PUP, and the previous projects have been the best publishing experiences of my life, so I am looking forward to this more than I can easily say.

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waking into the world

Auden’s single greatest poetic achievement, I think, is his sequence “Horae Canonicae,” which begins with the first hour of the prayerful day, Prime. Here is a stanza from Auden’s poem in which he describes something that always interested him, the experience of waking up:

Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world and rejoice
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
And smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.

Most of Auden’s critics know that he read Heidegger, and it’s easy to hear here an echo of Heidegger’s idea of “being thrown” (Geworfen) into the world. John Fuller also finds here echoes of Husserl and Paul Valéry. And all that may be true, but I wonder if there might be another source: Beowulf.

In the genealogical section with which Beowulf begins, we’re told that Halfdane had four children, though that’s not quite how the poet puts it. The poet says that four bearn — as some Scots still say, bairns — “woke into the world”:

ðaém féower bearn | forðgerímed
in worold wócun

And isn’t that what Auden is talking about? The daily birth, the daily waking into the world.

Maybe, maybe not. But it would be very characteristic of Auden to write a poem which blends an idea of Heidegger’s with a phrase made by the Beowulf poet.

Also, if when we are born we wake into the world, in death, we part from it: worulde gedál. That word gedál means “parting” or “separation,” but the Germanic root also means “valley.” When we die we are parted from the world: we take a last look at it, perhaps, across the great valley that separates us. Late in Auden’s sequence, at the hour of Compline, as he moves towards sleep at the end of a day that has seen the incomprehensible sacrifice of “our victim,” he writes:

Nothing is with me now but a sound,
A heart’s rhythm, a sense of stars
Leisurely walking around, and both
Talk a language of motion
I can measure but not read: maybe
My heart is confessing her part
In what happened to us from noon till three,
That constellations indeed
Sing of some hilarity beyond
All liking and happening,
But, knowing I neither know what they know
Nor what I ought to know, scorning
All vain fornications of fancy,
Now let me, blessing them both
For the sweetness of their cassations,
Accept our separations.

“Poetry makes nothing happen”

Alexander Chee:

My generation of writers — ​and yours, if you are reading this — ​lives in the shadow of Auden’s famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I had heard the remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what it was he really meant by it. Because I knew it was time for me to really argue with it. If not for myself, for my students.

The thing is, Chee makes no attempt whatsoever to find out what Auden meant when he wrote “Poetry makes nothing happen.” If he had, he might have learned that Auden never in any way made an “attack on the relevance of writing to life.” That line was a response by Auden to the political poets of the Thirties who convinced themselves that in writing poetry they were changing the social and political order. But, Auden believed, they weren’t. Poetry does many wonderful things, Auden believed, but in the sphere of politics it can make nothing happen. 

Auden adapted

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
Tweet, tweet, for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Tweet till the stars come down from the rafters;
Tweet, tweet, tweet till you drop.

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

— W. H. Auden, review of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (in Forewords and Afterwords)

enough already

I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.

As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.

We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.

The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.

John Fuller

This is a really lovely profile of the poet and critic John Fuller, whom I admire greatly in both of his roles, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. When I was working on my critical edition of Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, I of course heavily consulted Fuller’s magisterial commentary on Auden — and then when I was working through the Auden manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas, I would sometimes find in the folders and notebooks small handwritten notes by Fuller, correcting some mistaken attribution or pointing out some further piece of information. When working in those archives he had taken the time and trouble to make things easier for those who would come after him — an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity.

And then, when the edition came out, I received a gracious letter from Fuller. In a gently apologetic tone, he explained that, though he had been asked to review the book, he could not, as he had retired from reviewing. But he wanted me to know that he thought I had done an excellent job and that he had learned a good bit about the poem from my introduction and notes. For a few days I was quite swollen with pride about that.

The profile concludes with these lovely lines from Fuller’s new book:

Lucent the points of burning air. To sit
On terraces is to not want to go
So long as the flames glow. No, not one bit.
Reluctance is a struggle: burning slow,
Or hoping to be suddenly relit
Like those renewing birthday candles. Though
Birthdays have been and gone, and few will come
Again, still, think of this: there may be some.

There may be some, indeed; and I hope for Mr. Fuller more than a few. He is a gentleman and a scholar and, of course, a poet.


Yet the author of The Age of Anxiety and the author of The Gutenberg Galaxy turn out to have more in common than their conflict might suggest. Both in their 60s by the time of this discussion (“Thank God I can remember the world before World War I,” says the poet) and both 1930s converts to Catholicism…

Marshall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buckminster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Modern Technology & Media (1971) | Open Culture. That would be — what’s the word? — wrong.


Whenever you suggest that history is a matter of losses as well as gains, whenever you call attention to what we’ve lost along the way, whether it’s something we deliberately set aside or something we just forgot to pack, a great chorus starts shouting “Nostalgia!” You may not even want to have packed it; you may think that we chose as well as we could have in the circumstances; but you need only hint that something of value, even of some tiny tiny value, that we once held we hold no longer, and it starts: “always the loud angry crowd, / Very angry and very loud,” crying: “Nostalgia!”

It’s a bullying cry, but they’re not bullying you, at least not primarily. They’re bullying that little voice within them that wonders whether there might be more to the future than “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.” Nothing could be more essential than to silence that quiet, that ever-so-gently skeptical voice.

once more around the Christian intellectual block

So, let me explain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I have to say, I liked Strachan’s first effort better than his second, because in the second he attributes to me thoughts I do not think and statements I did not make. To wit:

It is [Jacobs’s] contention that evangelicals do not do good enough work to merit inclusion in the big bad secular academy, and that the neo-evangelicals whom I referenced were not themselves trying after all to enter the secular citadel, but sought to build staging grounds by which future generations would do so. To complete the narrative, in Jacobs’s view we have by and large failed to make good on these hopes. We are isolated, without much cultural influence, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Mostly wrong (right about the “staging grounds,” though). In my original essay I said that the disappearance of the generally audible Christian intellectual was “not wholly elective,” and I spent some time describing the forces that pushed us further into “subaltern counterpublics.” In my post I said often the work of my fellow Christian scholars who complain about exclusion isn’t good enough. I then said “Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place.”

So no, I never said that “we have no one but ourselves to blame.” I said that (a) some of the blame belongs to us, and (b) I think it’s spiritually and intellectually healthier to focus on our own shortcomings, “even if there really is a mean old secular world and it really does want our marginalization.”

I would also say that there are some important distinctions to be made between the place of the Christian public intellectual (which was the subject of my essay) and the place of the Christian scholar (which is what we’re discussing now).

One more thing: Strachan writes, “Perhaps he and I are both working from biography,” and I think that’s true, though in a slightly different way than his account of his time at Bowdoin indicates. I think — and here let me call attention to the “UPDATE” of my earlier response — the larger and more important difference between my experience and his is that I’m a literature guy and he’s a theologian. So I can work on W. H. Auden, who was a great poet and a tremendously theologically literate thinker, and say, “Hey, it doesn’t really matter what I think, I’m just telling you what Auden thought.” I have some cover, in other words.

Now, that’s not the whole explanation. You can be a serious Christian theologian and teach in the secular academy: Kevin Hector is the first example who comes to mind, and yes, I’m going to say that the University of Chicago Divinity School is “the secular academy,” because mostly it is. But it depends on what you work on, and it’s never going to be easy. I’ve had the luxury of deciding just how theological I want to be, or don’t want to be, which is a luxury no reputable theologian has.

Now, that said: I have chosen to be pretty theological, and as I’ve written before, I believe I’ve paid a price for that. I am simply unemployable outside the small world of religious colleges and universities. But the academic publishing world, in my experience, offers more possibilities.

So the story for almost all of us is a mixed one, with doors closing here, opening there. I just want to give as complete a picture as I can — but err on the side of emphasizing what we Christian scholars need to do to live up to our calling as fully as we possibly can.

The Lord of Limit: Geoffrey Hill, R.I.P.


The poet Geoffrey Hill has died, age 84. As a token of my esteem for him, I’m posting here a review I wrote in 2004 for Books and Culture of his collection of essays, Style and Faith

A. N. Wilson has written, “I think Geoffrey Hill is probably the best writer alive, in prose or rhyme, in the English language.” Michael Dirda confines his judgment to the realm of verse, but disdains qualification: “Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living English poet.” And Peter Levi adds to Dirda’s assertion a jutting insistence: “Geoffrey Hill must by now be indisputably the best living poet in English and perhaps in the world.”

At least Levi‘s “perhaps” gives us room to dissent from the global judgment. But “indisputably” was surely unwise – what word could better guarantee dispute? Indeed, it is the nature of such claims to invite demurrals, counter-claims, refutations. But they also command attention, and perhaps that is what Wilson, Dirda, and Levi wanted above all, since many otherwise quite literate people do not know the work of Geoffrey Hill.

Hill was born in England in 1932, but has lived for fifteen years now in this country, where he is Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University. Between 1959 and 1992 he published five slender volumes of verse, plus a New and Collected Poems (the new ones being rather few), and an extraordinary collection of essays, The Lords of Limit. Especially in his first four books, Hill’s poems are rather consistent in their tone and their resources: they combine a fascination for the Latinate with a deep, deep immersion in the early centuries of the Anglo-Saxon Christian world. (Of a set of poems called “Funeral Music,” Hill wrote, “In this sequence I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks.”) One of Hill’s finest achievements is surely the sequence of prose poems called Mercian Hymns (1971), which call forth the long-forgotten eighth-century world of King Offa of Mercia — a kingdom in what we now call the English Midlands, including Hill’s native Worcestershire. Hill’s writing is always difficult to understand — it has often been called obscure — and it seems meticulously wrought, which may explain how little there was of it, until recently.

It was, by and large, this rather slight harvest of four decades’ labor that prompted the lavish praise noted above. But in the last seven years Hill has produced four volumes of verse that have stunned his readers not only by their bulk but also by their sometimes quite dramatic differences from the earlier work — differences in tone, style, and often theme. It is difficult to imagine the pre-1990’s Hill composing a poem about someone like Diana, Princess of Wales – and utterly impossible to imagine him writing, as he does in Speech! Speech! (2000), of bringing forth his memorial “wreath to the vulgar gates.” Reading these poems, one familiar with Hill’s idiom is unsurprised to find words like “vitrine” or “pellitory,” but doesn’t know what to make of “RAPMASTER” and “BEEN THERE DONE THAT,” even when they appear in big caps like newspaper headlines. Only Auden, among the major English poets, remade his verse more thoroughly that Hill has. And so soon after the remaking, it would be reckless now to say that Hill is “indisputably” anything. At the moment, I don’t like the recent poems at all. But from my studies of Auden I have learned at least this: to wait until the dust has well settled before attempting a serious judgment.

In the meantime, it is impossible not to think of Hill’s new book, Style and Faith, as a possible source for clues to this transformation. It contains but seven essays, all previously published, comprising 159 pages in all (the remainder being notes and apparatus). The first links Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Oxford English Dictionary, while the last considers T. S. Eliot; but in between Hill meditates on major figures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Tyndale, Donne, Richard Hooker, Robert Burton, Henry Vaughan, the historian Lord Clarendon, and (sneaking into the next century) Isaac Watts and the Wesleys.

A straightforward reading of Style and Faith – and not, I think, a superficial one – would lead to the conclusion that Hill cares a good deal more about style than about faith. On matters of style, or more generally of language, he is always quick to state a conviction: that the revised O.E.D. does ill to include “tofu” while neglecting Hopkins’s coinage “unchancelling”; that David Daniell was unwise to modernize the spelling of his edition of Tyndale’s New Testament; that Isabel Rivers’s critical study Reason, Grace and Sentiment “is oblivious to its own compliance with the prevailing jargon of modern communication.” But when considering matters of faith Hill assumes the dispassionate voice of a historian: he will demonstrate that the various styles of Burton, Hooker, and Donne incarnate equally various modes of faith, but he will refrain from stating a preference. He will explore with great sensitivity and nuance a single pivotal word in a poem by Vaughan, noting its spiritual resonances but judging them not.

Such a habit leads the reader – or leads me, anyway – to wonder if some of Hill’s critical statements are not cloaked self-revelations: “Clarendon’s style, therefore, however firmly it adheres to the principle of integrity and comeliness, in practice is bound to show signs of strain, of badly resolved perplexity, partly realized contradiction, and implicit self-contradiction.” (Does this suggest Hill’s dissatisfaction with his own long-honed style, and a resulting need for change?) Or this comment about the tension between theology and artifice in the Wesleys’ hymns: “I think it entirely possible for a hymn to be, at one and the same time, joyful and ‘unhappy’; that kind of oxymoron is inherent in the creative matter, the ganglion of language and circumstance from which the piece of divine poetry is created.” (An explanation of the deep sobriety and sadness of much of Hill’s verse?)

These are the merest of speculations, and could scarcely be anything else. But one passage is clearly more than that, and truly illuminates Hill’s thinking. Near the end of his essay on Vaughan, he stresses the need to conceive of language as “something other than a mere ancillary of ‘vision’ or ‘experience’. Language is a vital factor of experience, and, as ‘sensory material’, may be religiously apprehended.” That affirmation links Hill not only to Vaughan but also to the poets who bookend this volume, Hopkins and Eliot. As different as they may have been stylistically, both sought to achieve a fully “religious” apprehension of language and were continually (even agonizingly) aware of the forces in self and world that set themselves recalcitrantly against poetry’s hopes for catching the transcendent. In these essays – as in his previous essays – Hill situates himself in their company. We should preserve Hopkins’s inscrutable “unchancelling,” however few people will care about it, and even if our concern for such words leads us to neglect “tofu.” After all, did not Eliot remind poets that their task is to “purify the dialect of the tribe”? That style matters is, for Hill, an article of faith – as it was, he says, for John Donne: “With Donne, style is faith.”

Whether Hill’s joining of style and faith has anything to do with actual Christian belief – as it certainly has for Donne and Hopkins and Eliot – I cannot say. Adam Hirsch, writing in The New Republic about Hill’s most recent book of poems, The Orchards of Syon (2002), points to a passage in which Hill writes, “But the Psalms — they remain,” and suggests that they offer “if not wisdom, then something / that approaches it nearly. And if not faith, / then something through which it is / made possible to give credence.” Hirsch notes the “evasion” of this passage, its refusal to make a straightforward avowal of wisdom or faith. And the same evasion is present in this volume: Hill concludes his preface by noting that “in most instances style and faith remain obdurately apart. In some cases, despite the presence of well-intentioned labour, style betrays a fundamental idleness which it is impossible to reconcile with the workings of good faith.” Reading which I think, “good faith”? Bona fides? Oh, I thought you were talking about faith.”

In any case, “style is faith” is what Hill has always believed. So if we ask what these essays do to explain or illuminate the dramatic change in Hill’s recent poetry, the answer, I’m afraid, must be “Nothing.” The essays were published between 1989 and 1999, the very period in which Hill was reinventing his verse, and in that light what is most surprising about them is how much they resemble his earlier essays. The gusts of idiomatic currency that have blown through Hill’s last several years of poems are undetectable here, at least to me. The knowledge that, sometime in the 1990s, Hill began taking medication for depression could well be more helpful in interpreting these new poems than anything in Style and Faith – scrupulous, learned, and sometimes wise though those essays be. All of his essays share with his earlier poems an emphasis on the forces that can and should restrain and correct the poetic imagination: language, history, all the forms of context – in a word, limit. (“Lords of Limit” is a phrase from Auden, who shared this emphasis.) Geoffrey Hill’s recent poetry remains formally strict and meticulously structured, but in its diction at least — and diction means much to Hill — it exceeds the limits its author, for thirty years or more, set for it. Whether this is a development to mourn or to celebrate time alone will tell. Style and Faith doesn’t.

“he who is true”

If the Word was indeed made flesh, then it is demanded of men that their words and their lives be in concord. Only he who is true can speak the truth.

— W. H. Auden, “Words and The Word” (1968)

readers reborn

If the reading of adults is as inefficient as Professor Adler asserts – and I agree with him – it is because most of them are reading only in order to escape from their own thoughts or to be socially respectable. If they are to improve, the first thing to say to them is not — “You don’t read enough,” or “You read bad books,” but — “You read far too much. You haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a person you are or what you want to know, and it is no use your trying to read at all until you have, and are compelled to admit to the truth you discover is most disagreeable. To read the Iliad because Professor Adler tells you it is good is no better than reading the Saturday Evening Post because your neighbor reads it. No one can tell you how to become a civilized person. There is no ready-made answer because, to become civilized, you will have to be reborn.”

— W. H. Auden, review of Mortimer Adler’s How To Read a Book (1941)

operating systems & the Reformation

I wrote this some years ago in a post that has now been taken down — reposted here — but with Umberto Eco’s death the topic is fresh again. Thus this excerpt: 

Have you heard the one about computer operating systems and the Reformation? You probably have. Most people got the story from the Italian semiotician and academic superstar Umberto Eco. In his telling, from an article he published in 1994, it goes like this:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

More on this interpretation in a moment, but I can’t go any further without commenting that my friend Edward Mendelson — professor at Columbia, literary executor of W.H. Auden, and occasional character in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith — made the point six years before Eco did, and just as wittily and incisively:

In the 16th century the printed book helped make possible the split between Catholics and Protestants. In the 20th century this history of tragedy and triumph is repeating itself as farce. Those who worship the Apple computer and those who put their faith in the IBM PC are equally convinced that the other camp is damned or deluded. Each cult holds in contempt the rituals and the laws of the other. Each thinks that it is itself the one hope for salvation.

Each of these cults corresponds to one of the two antagonists in the age of Reformation. In the realm of the Apple Macintosh, as in Catholic Europe, worshipers peer devoutly into screens filled with “icons.” All is sound and imagery in Appledom. . . . A central corporate headquarters decrees the form of all rites and practices. Infallible doctrine issues from one executive officer whose selection occurs in a sealed boardroom. . . .

As in Protestant Europe, by contrast, where sects divided endlessly into smaller competing sects and no church dominated any other, all is different in the fragmented world of IBM. That realm is now a chaos of conflicting norms and standards that not even IBM can hope to control. . . . When IBM recently abandoned some of its original standards and decreed new ones, many of its rivals declared a puritan allegiance to IBM’s original faith, and denounced the company as a divisive innovator. Still, the IBM world is united by its distrust of icons and imagery. IBM’s screens are designed for language, not pictures. Graven images may be tolerated by the more luxurious cults, but the true IBM faith relies on the austerity of the word.

My first thought on re-reading Mendelson’s extended metaphor, which I went around quoting for several years after it first appeared, is: How much has changed! It is growing increasingly difficult to remember that IBM was once a colossus striding the earth, and that people spoke of almost any non-Apple computer as an “IBM machine.” In 1988, the major players were hardware manufacturers.

Six years later, when Eco develops the same conceit, there is one subtle but important shift: he doesn’t speak of “IBM” but rather “MS-DOS” — not a maker of computers but an operating system. And this is the path the conflicts would take: not Apple versus IBM, but Mac (conceived more as an operating system, as a way of organizing and presenting data, than as a physical machine) versus Windows.

an educational Dark Age?

In response to this post on a lament by David Gelernter, one of Rod Dreher’s commenters cites, as evidence of cultural decline, an episode of M*A*S*H in which the characters all sing “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I think the idea is that people in the 1970s thought that people in the 1950s all knew that ancient hymn, so therefore … I’m not sure. Can’t quite follow it. I can tell you this, though: absolutely none of my Alabama Baptist redneck family, whether sixty or forty or twenty years ago or right now, could tell you whether “Dona Nobis Pacem” is a man or a horse. Though some of the elders might have a story or two to tell about Tommy Nobis.

When you’re arguing that what Hollywood TV scriptwriters in the 1970s put into their show about the 1950s is a reliable guide to the cultural capital possessed by that long-ago era, your narrative of decline needs some serious work. But Gelernter doesn’t provide it either. For instance, he says:

The problem is – the incredible richness of American civilization in the years after the Second World War, the generation after the Second World War. When we were creating such extraordinary art and painting, such extraordinary science and mathematics and engineering. Such extraordinary music. Gershwin – we were still in the Tin Pan Alley generation of Gershwin and Kern, and Cole Porter. Leonard Bernstein was the first American born maestro, and his young people’s concerts were broadcast by CBS, coast to coast. We were – people were excited about novelists. When Hemingway did something, shoot himself, it was front-page news. People knew and cared. They knew who Picasso was. He was a celebrity. They knew who Matisse had been. They heard of Jacometti [sic], they cared about Chagall. Chagall was a big celebrity in the United States.

Who knew who Mastisse had been? Who had heard of Giacometti? Not me, when I was growing up. Not my parents or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends. (Also, not the person who transcribed the conversation, but never mind.) Gelernter again:

Music appreciation was never taken seriously. But what we used to do was, at least, expose students to things that they might be excited about, that their own minds would propel them into. So they would know nothing about Beethoven in any deep sense but they would have heard a phrase from the Fifth Symphony, they would have heard a phrase from the Ninth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata. Doesn’t mean they know Beethoven, but it means if they love music, the door is open, they have some concept of what culture is.

Again, not me, not anyone I knew, in my generation or the previous ones. In my music appreciation class we never got beyond “Reuben and Rachel.” So which educational model was closer to the American norm, that of my world or that of Gelernter’s? Where’s the evidence? (I’ve looked at his book America Lite and I don’t see any.)

Now, there are some changes that are easy to discern. For instance, in 1947 Time had cover stories on C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr, and reviewed W. H. Auden’s book-length poem The Age of Anxiety. Not something that would happen today, to put it mildly. The television networks felt that they had some responsibility to bring culture to the masses, thus, to take just one example, the creation of a classical music celebrity in Van Cliburn. But about education we seem to have nothing but anecdotes, and anecdotes that fail to come to grips with massive demographic changes especially in American university education.

So we end up getting rants like this one from a professor who seems to hate his job and have contempt for his students, who insists that students aren’t interested in learning and “no one [is] being educated” in universities today and parents are “allowing [their] children to become steadily less intelligent” — and all with the implication that once upon a time thing were better in higher education.

But were they? When? Back in the day when a tiny fraction of Americans attended college? In the days of the “Gentleman’s C,” when the smug sons of robber barons got such grades because, though they loved learning for its very own sweet sake, their professors were so intellectually rigorous that a C was the best they could do? Please. I’ve been saying this for years: Narratives of educational decline need data. My experience as a teacher doesn’t match these stories. Students always vary in their interests and abilities, but I have not seen any decline in either since I started teaching in 1982. Maybe my experience is an outlier; but without the data I don’t know. And even with data we need to reckon with the fact that college education now has a radically different place in American society than it had before the 1944 G.I. Bill, one of the most momentous legislative acts in American history.

P.S. At least some of the data is out there, for people who’d actually like to know. It’s not easy to find, and it’s not complete, and it’s always aiming at a moving target, given those huge demographic changes I’ve mentioned. But we can do a lot better in comparing eras, and regions, than even enormously smart people like David Gelernter typically do.

The most memorable encounter between Day and Auden took place in 1956. By then, the Catholic Worker Movement, with its network of shelters and communal farms, was established as a national manger for the homeless. Because Day’s pacifism and compassion for striking workers was deemed subversive, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI tried to nail her for sedition, but failed. Then, Day got a notice from the New York City fire department stating that unless she paid $250 to repair her “fire-trap” of a hospitality house, it would be closed. When she stepped out of the shelter to hurry to court, she saw a shabby group of men outside and assumed they were interested in the old-clothes bin. But one of them pressed something into her hands muttering, “Here’s two-fifty.” Only on the subway did she discover she’d been handed a cheque, not for $2.50 but $250, and that the hobo was the pre-eminent poet of the age.

Auden had read about Day’s situation in the New York Times and shambled over from his famously unkempt apartment to do his bit, probably dressed in a rumpled, ash-smeared suit and carpet slippers. It wasn’t that he was rich. Scarcely a few days earlier he had written to his friend Stephen Spender, “How am I to live?” Still, he made his handsome donation. When he later examined his motivations, he concluded that he had been unconsciously selfish: it was to allay his conscience. He hated the camera, but he was good at taking moral selfies. For Day, the Catholic Church had a similar problem: “plenty of charity but too little justice.”

Day paid Auden back in the finest way possible. She told him that while in prison for refusing to participate in an air-raid drill, her co-inmate, a whore, had marched off to the weekly shower quoting the last line from a poem Auden had just published in the New Yorker: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” For the rest of his life, Auden maintained it was the “nicest poetical compliment” he had ever received. “My God,” he thought, “I haven’t written in vain.” This from the poet who wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and never stopped repeating, especially after a few martinis, that all his revolutionary verse of the 1930s had not saved a single Jew from the ovens.

Among the truly great poets, the handful of absolute masters, the most neglected is Horace. This was not always so, but when the study of Latin fell away so too did Horace’s influence and reputation. He does not yield readily to translation: his poetry combines colloquial ease and extreme concision in a way almost impossible to imitate in other tongues. (David Ferry’s marvelous versions don’t even try to be concise, but they capture much of Horace’s distinctive and inimitable charm.) In the last hundred years, two major poets in English have understood themselves as heirs to the Horatian tradition. One of them is W. H. Auden, and the other is Les Murray.

Michael O’Loughlin has named this tradition “retired leisure,” a retreat from the vortex of social and political life not simply to repudiate it, but to save yourself from being torn apart by it, to see it more clearly, to bear vivid witness to its absurdities—and perhaps to exemplify better ways to live. Horace’s friend and patron Maecenas bought him a farm near modern Licenza—the poet called it his “Sabine farm”—and from there he watched with tolerant wisdom the follies of Rome, and wrote his beautiful poems. Les Murray’s place in little Bunyah, up the North Coast of New South Wales, is his Sabine farm.

Greif is relentlessly sober and earnest about writers who eschewed sobriety and earnestness. He acknowledges “mockery” and “irony,” but I don’t know whether he ever acknowledges the importance of this fact about most of his chosen fiction writers: that they think “man” is, all things considered, a pretty ludicrous figure. For instance, he acknowledges that in Pynchon’s Benny Profane is a schlemihl because he “cannot get along with objects. Objects are always slipping from his hands, hitting him in the face, failing to work. Alarm clocks won’t ring on time, spades will turn, electronics won’t run.” This is all true, but it’s important to note that this affliction puts Benny in the same general class as … Sideshow Bob when he steps on the rakes. One of Pynchon’s constant themes is that technology makes schlemiels of us all, even as we try to convince ourselves that we are becoming more and more masterful because of all the clever machines we can make and buy.  

In O’Connor’s work, and in Bellow’s—and even Ellison’s, in a bitterer vein—comedy constitutes a chief form of critique of the hubris of man. Auden once commented that “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”—the laws that govern rakes, and alarm clocks, and my neighbor, whose bondage to those laws I laugh at until I am forced by events to acknowledge that the same laws also afflict me. As Auden puts it, “No one … can claim immunity from the comic exposure”—this is a point relentlessly emphasized in the stories of O’Connor (where people usually respond to such exposure with rage), in the novels of Bellow (where the response is usually exasperation), and in the novels of Pynchon (where it is usually befuddlement). We seem never to learn what we need to learn from this exposure, from this relentless evidence that we are not the captains of our fate or masters of our destiny, but subject to the same dreary old physical forces that dogs and plants and stones must contend with. The nature of man, these writers tell us, is to be comically unable to accept constraints upon Being, comically insistent that we can somehow take charge of our lives and our worlds. There is of course a tragic side to this insistence as well.

Man in Crisis | Books and Culture. My review of Mark Greif’s new book. I have more, and more critical, comments about the book here

A satisfactory human life, individually or collectively, is possible only if proper respect is paid to all three worlds [Work, Carnival, and Prayer]. Without Prayer and Work, the Carnival laughter turns ugly, the comic obscenities grubby and pornographic, the mock aggression into real hatred and cruelty…. Without Laughter and Work, Prayer turns Gnostic, cranky, Pharisaic, while those who try to live by Work alone, without Laughter or Prayer, turn into insane lovers of power, tyrants who would enslave Nature to their immediate desires — an attempt which can only end in utter catastrophe, shipwreck on the Isle of the Sirens.

— W. H. Auden, “Work, Carnival, and Prayer,” a lecture published for the first time in this new volume.