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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

the technique of the Black Magician

In all ages, the technique of the Black Magician has been essentially the same. In all spells the words are deprived of their meanings and reduced to syllables or verbal noises. This may be done literally, as when magicians used to recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or by reiterating a word over and over again as loudly as possible until it has become a mere sound. For millions of people today, words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy, have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee-reflex. 

It makes no difference if the magic is being employed simply for the aggrandizement of the magician himself or if, as is more usual, he claims to be serving some good cause. Indeed, the better the cause he claims to be serving, the more evil he does…. Propaganda, like the sword, attempts to eliminate consent or dissent and, in our age, magical language has to a great extent replaced the sword.

– W. H. Auden, “Words and the Word,” in Secondary Worlds (1968). Still more true today.

Auden and the Dream of Public Poetry

This essay was originally published in this book. I’m posting it here because I think fairly well of it — though I would write it very differently today — and wish it had had more readers. (Nothing makes an essay disappear as thoroughly as publishing it in an edited collection on a scholarly press.)


The first of “Two Songs for Hedli Andersen,” written by W. H. Auden in 1936 and never considered one of his major works, found new and unexpected life in 1994 when it was featured in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. A young man asked to speak at the funeral of his beloved finds that the words of ‘another splendid bugger’ speak for him, and reads the poem, in a cracking voice, to the assembled mourners.

Much of the credit for the strong response to this poem must go to John Hannah, the actor who plays the bereaved lover and whose recitation of the poem is indeed affecting; moreover, one should not discount the appeal of the film’s portrayal of a devoted gay couple whose relationship is the envy of all their straight friends; but clearly Auden’s poem itself struck something of a chord in many viewers. Within months of the film’s release one could purchase a recording of Hannah reading ‘Funeral Blues’ — as Auden called the poem in his 1940 collection Another Time, and as it is called on the recording, though as we shall see it was given different titles both before and after — and several other poems by Auden. A small chapbook-like edition of a dozen or so love poems by Auden was released, to be followed within the year by a substantial collection of Auden’s songs and occasional poems; both of these included, and prominently featured, ‘Funeral Blues’.

Those of us who love and celebrate poetry, especially modern poetry, must of course be gratified by this unexpected burst of attention. But we may also ask ourselves why it happened to this particular poem, especially since it is not one of Auden’s acknowledged masterpieces. I do not know of an anthology in which it appears, and Edward Mendelson did not include it among the hundred poems he chose for the second edition of Auden’s Selected Poems (though Auden himself selected it for the first edition, which he compiled in 1958). And one does not have to read the poem very closely before noting that it is in some ways peculiar: for instance, the way it juxtaposes distinctive and even bizarre metaphors with shamelessly deployed clichés. The ‘black cotton gloves’ of the traffic policemen seem faintly comic, and the presence of such an image in a funeral lament is rather suspicious. Still more dubious is the skywritten news bulletin: ‘He is dead’ instead of, say, ‘Eat at Joe’s’. But even if the reader feels the dissonance between what I. A. Richards would call tenor and vehicle in these metaphors, they are at least new, something which cannot be said for a line such as ‘I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong’. The poem seems to hover, or to cause its reader to hover, uneasily among sentimentality, parody and (especially in the final stanza) deep pathos.

It is clear, then, that a traditional new-critical close reading of ‘Funeral Blues’ (the kind of reading I have just sketched an outline of) is bound to discover features of the poem which by the criteria of that theory can only be called faults. Close readers tend to value irony and paradox, but not tonal inconsistency, and cannot abide the use of cliché. But these ‘faults’ come into view, are identifiable as faults, primarily because close reading is just that, a way of reading, and this poem was not, at least at first, made to be read. It is not evident that a good poem-for-reading will possess the same characteristics of a good poem-for-singing, and Auden makes it clear that ‘Funeral Blues’ is primarily a song, intended for public and aural, rather than private and visual, appropriation. It is a ‘Blues’, that is, among other things, a song in a popular idiom. In the last edition of his Collected Poems that he oversaw Auden placed it in a group of ‘Twelve Songs’.[1] In the 1958 Selected Poems it is identified as one of ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’,[2] Hedli Anderson being an actress and singer whom Auden first met in the thirties, when both of them were working with the Group Theatre. And indeed, the first version of the song appeared in The Ascent of F6, the play that Auden and Christopher Isherwood wrote for the Group Theatre in 1936 (and which was performed for the first time in early 1937).[3] Only in 1938 did the poem we now have emerge from this song: it was published in an anthology called Poems for To-day (Third Series) under the title ‘Blues’.[4]

In light of this complicated textual history one could argue that Four Weddings and a Funeral has rescued ‘Funeral Blues’ from a context — that of private, solitary reading — essentially foreign to its means and purposes, and placed it within a more congenial environment, thereby releasing its power and making evident its virtues. (The cinema in no sense identical to the stage — as we will later have cause to reflect — but approximates it more closely than does the printed word.) When read aloud or sung ‘Funeral Blues’ works in a way that it may not on the page, and shows itself a significant and powerful work of art. The human voice, as John Hannah has demonstrated, gives resonance to the assortment of strange tropes and flat clichés; the utterance of the poem by a person knits up these heterogenous linguistic threads into a tightly woven garment of grief. We understand, hearing that utterance, that clichés and strained metaphors alike are resources called upon in the disarray of bereavement.

Or so I contend, by way of explaining the poem’s sudden popularity. But that Auden would write such a song only to have it disappear into the great jumble of his Collected Poems — this is a fragment of literary history worthy of a little attention. The immediate origins of this phenomenon lie, not in Auden’s work, but in a brief and relatively little-known essay by T. S. Eliot. For the early Auden inherits from Eliot a great dream, one in which both poetry and English society are restored to some imagined earlier state of wholeness and integration. ‘Stop all the clocks,’ in each of its forms, is a tentative but hopeful step toward the realization of that dream; but the story I want to tell describes the dream’s abandonment.


Consider: Auden is known to students and teachers of literature almost exclusively through the poems he wrote for the page, while his dramatic poetry — though it fills approximately a thousand pages in the edition of his Complete Works which Edward Mendelson is in the process of editing — remains almost completely unknown. The case of T. S. Eliot is quite similar in this respect: critics often speak of Four Quartets as Eliot’s ‘farewell to poetry’ even though he wrote verse plays for another two decades; and the fame of The Waste Land could never console Eliot for his failure to complete what he often considered his most important project, the ‘Aristophanic melodrama’ Sweeney Agonistes.[5]

What is particularly ironic about these case studies in poetic reputation is that for Auden and Eliot dramatic poetry was absolutely central to a vision they (with many other modern artists) shared: the vision of a culture of unified sensibility. That term, of course, derives from Eliot’s famous historical thesis about a European ‘dissociation of sensibility’ that ‘set in’ in the seventeenth century, and ‘from which we have never recovered’.[6] As Eliot’s thoughts on this subject developed, it became more and more clear to him that individual sensibilities could only be unified and integrated if civil society were reunified and reintegrated. In short, Eliot came more and more to believe that only a fully functioning public sphere could rescue us from our long agony — and to hope that a ‘reconstruction’ or ‘restoration’ of the English tradition of poetic drama could serve in the building of that public sphere.

Eliot’s first significant, if tentative, move to articulate his hopes for the drama comes in an essay first published in 1919 and called ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama.’ Eliot’s speculations are animated by a conviction quite prominent in his criticism of those years:

The Elizabethan Age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it had this great form of its own [i.e., the drama] which imposed itself on everything that came to it. Consequently, the blank verse of their plays accomplished a subtlety and consciousness, even an intellectual power, that no blank verse since has developed or even repeated; elsewhere this age is crude, pedantic, or loutish in comparison with its contemporary France or Italy.[7]

Eliot here attributes to Elizabethan society as a whole something very like what he attributes to certain individual writers in his articulation of the difference between a unified and dissociated sensibility: ‘The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.[8] But note that in the first passage social integration is the consequence of the possession of integrated minds by the society’s poets, especially its dramatic poets. He admits that ‘the drama is only one among several poetic forms,’ but contends that it ‘is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other,’ and further claims that ‘when one day it was discovered lifeless, subsequent forms which had enjoyed a transitory life were dead too’.[9] And not just literary forms, but also, presumably, forms of social life were lost with the demise of poetic drama.

This social integration, according to Eliot, was not the achievement of heroic figures like Marlowe or Shakespeare: rather, such poets were the beneficiaries of a general development. When he makes this point Eliot fairly drools with envy: ‘To have, given into one’s hands, a crude form, capable of indefinite refinement, and to be the person to see the possibilities — Shakespeare was very fortunate. And it is perhaps the craving for some such donnée which draws us on to the present mirage of poetic drama’.[10] For if we were to understand just how much is given to the dramatic poet in such an age ‘we should see then just how little each poet had to do; only so much as would make a play his, only what was really essential to make it different from anyone else’s. When there is this economy of effort it is possible to have several, even many good poets at once. The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours; but less talent was wasted’.[11]

Eliot’s account suggests that an age which lacks such a donnée, such a preexisting dramatic form, will be not just artistically but politically impoverished and imperiled. But Eliot’s little cultural history is thoroughly anti-heroic: it offers no hope that a single poet, or even a collection of gifted poets, will be able simply to create the needful form if it is missing. So he looks again at his contemporary scene: is anything appropriate ‘given’ to us? In the last paragraph of his essay, as (it appears) an afterthought, Eliot tosses out a suggestion:

The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make… [12]

Then follow three ambiguous sentences that distinguish, in a vague way, treating art seriously, treating it solemnly, and treating it as a joke. End of essay.

But having fled unceremoniously from his own notion, Eliot found himself unable to ignore it, and when Marie Lloyd died in 1922 he discovered an occasion to return to the idea and give some hint of its potential importance. Lloyd was, for Eliot as for many others, the greatest of the music-hall entertainers. And what made her great, says Eliot, was her ability to use her art to forge a temporary but powerful union with her audiences. While other performers could ‘amuse their audiences as much [as] and sometimes more than Marie Lloyd, no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art’.[13] ‘The working man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the act; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art’.[14]

Throughout this brief eulogy Eliot hints at, though he never specifically mentions, ancient Athenian drama. In the sentence just quoted one might think of the ending of Aeschylus’ Eumenidies, when the audience quite literally ‘joins in the chorus’ and marches with the actors out of the Theater of Dionysus to celebrate the past, present, and future of Athens. And when Eliot says that Marie Lloyd’s audiences were ‘not so much hilarious as happy’ he seems to be invoking that complex Greek word commonly if inadequately translated as ‘happiness,’ eudaimoniaeudaimonia for the citizens of Athens being the ultimate goal of Athenian drama (and philosophy too, for that matter).

But if Marie Lloyd’s music-hall is the closest equivalent in postwar London to the Theater of Dionysus, the parallel is not after all as close as Eliot would like. For the music-hall is a class-specific phenomenon — it is, in Habermasian terms, a ‘partial’ rather than a ‘universal’ public sphere, or (more specifically) in Nancy Fraser’s language a ‘subaltern counterpublic’: Marie Lloyd, says Eliot, is ‘the expressive figure of the lower classes.’ In her music and comedy, working people ‘find the expression and dignity of their own lives.’ Such a gift is not available to either the aristocracy, who ‘are subordinate to the middle class, which is gradually absorbing and destroying them,’ or to the middle classes (Eliot shifts to the plural here) themselves, who ‘have no such idol’ as Marie Lloyd because they ‘are morally corrupt.’ And even the lower classes, who have tragically just lost their ‘idol’ and ‘expressive figure,’ may not last much longer, since their representative dramatic form is being replaced by the ‘cheap and rapid-breeding cinema’ which threatens to reduce the lower classes to ‘the same state of protoplasm as the bourgeoisie’.[15]

This is strong language for the Eliot of 1922, though it would become pretty characteristic of him when another dozen years had passed. His frustration was no doubt intensified by the fact that he was not and could never be a member of the lower classes; Athenian drama was in its own way a class-specific phenomenon too, but it was at least the product of a class with whom Eliot could identify. What is needed, one may clearly infer from the essays I have been citing, is a modern form that in some way combines the energies and resources of the music-hall with the energies and resources of Athenian drama. This combination is represented in the very title of Eliot’s great theatrical project, which he started working on soon after the completion of The Waste Land [16] and only a few months after the death of Marie Lloyd: Sweeney Agonistes. But, as I have noted, he never finished the play; perhaps his theory of the sociological origins and development of great dramatic traditions, or rather of their failure to originate and develop, found empirical confirmation in his own work. ‘When he was engaged on Sweeney Agonistes,’ writes Peter Ackroyd, ‘he complained to Virginia Woolf that, in the absence of illustrious models, the contemporary writer was compelled to work on his own and that was, perhaps, the essential problem’.[17]


For Auden and the other Left writers of the Thirties — that is, almost every writer in England among that ‘second generation,’ the younger siblings as it were of Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Yeats, and Joyce — a primary attention to the public and political was not laboriously pursued, it was simply given. From the start of Auden’s career the drama held itself forth to him as a genre in which public dreams could be realised (thus paving the way for private satisfactions to follow): his first collection, Poems (1930), begins with his dramatic ‘charade’ Paid on Both Sides, and his criticism in the Thirties frequently recurs to the question of how a meaningful public role for poetry can be achieved. Thus the avowedly Leftist Auden, and the Eliot who in the preface to his 1928 collection of essays For Lancelot Andrewes deemed himself ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion,’ alike focused a remarkable amount of their time and energy in the Thirties on the construction of a poetic drama (with an accompanying dramatic theory) oriented toward the reconstitution of the public sphere. In one of the most interestingly condensed ironies of modern literary history, when the Group Theatre inaugurated its first public season in the autumn of 1935, it featured a double bill: Auden’s medievalist masque The Dance of Death and Eliot’s still fragmentary Sweeney Agonistes.

To understand how odd this juxtaposition is, one needs to compare, however briefly and inadequately, Eliot’s argument about the European ‘dissociation of sensibility’ with Habermas’s account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The two arguments have the same form, in that they describe how cultural and historical circumstances first enabled and then disabled a vibrant public sphere (to which vibrancy literature made a major contribution); but the differences are enormous. For Eliot, the European mind began to disintegrate in the seventeenth century, just about the time at which Habermas sees the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ beginning to assemble itself. Moreover, Eliot’s understanding of ‘unified sensibility’ depends upon a certain valorization of poetry, especially dramatic poetry, while for Habermas the literary genre that played the greatest role in establishing the ‘literary public sphere’ (literarische Öffentlichkeit) is the novel. Eliot has nothing to say about the novel, but one can readily infer that for him it is a debased genre. It is only a slight oversimplification to say that Habermas’s understanding of a workable public sphere is social-democratic, Eliot’s aristocratic: while Habermas thinks that ‘a robust civil society can develop only in the context of a liberal political culture,’ Eliot would surely reply that that’s just the kind of culture in which a ‘robust civil society’ is impossible. (Indeed, he makes such a case pretty explicitly in his suppressed 1934 volume After Strange Gods and, in a different way, in The Idea of a Christian Society.) This contrast is worth noting because Auden, whose politics were much closer to Habermas’s than Eliot’s, had to work with the only strong model of literary ‘publicness’ (again, Öffentlichkeit) available to him, and this meant that he had to engage in a long process of revising the Eliotic understanding of the potential public role of poetic drama.

Thus, as the young Auden worked through his understanding of what drama and poetry should be, Eliot could provide, if not a model for dramatic composition, a (contestable) model for dramatic theory; and indeed Auden often responds, usually covertly, to Eliot’s pronouncements. In a 1934 review, for instance, though he never mentions Eliot’s name he extends and meditates upon Eliot’s suggestion about the music-hall as a potential model for modern poetic drama — and pauses for an ironic echo of a sentence from ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama’:

If the would-be poetic dramatist demands extremely high-brow music and unfamiliar traditions of dancing, he will, of course, fail; but if he is willing to be humble and sympathetic, to accept what he finds to his hand and develop its latent possibilities, he may be agreeably surprised to find that after all the public will stand, nay even enjoy, a good deal of poetry.[18]

A year later, in writing a kind of manifesto for the Group Theatre, Auden seems to adapt ideas from Eliot’s essay on Marie Lloyd: ‘Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally there would be no spectators. In practice every member of the audience should feel like an understudy’.[19]

So it seems that Eliot provided Auden with certain coordinates to help him fix his proper artistic tasks. But, in what may be an example of the anxiety of influence — I have already spoken of a kind of revisionary swerving — Auden seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the literary models which Eliot tended to favor. If he was influenced by Athenian or Elizabethan tragedy, he preferred not to acknowledge it. He had moved to America before he could reckon directly with Shakespeare, in what may be his greatest poem, The Sea and the Mirror; in the Thirties he was determined to find medieval models. He told a friend that for anyone wanting to understand Paid on Both Sides — the title of which is taken from a line in Beowulf — ’literary knowledge of the Mummers’ play with its Old-New year symbolism is necessary’.[20] Similarly, his Dance of Death is an adaptation of both the medieval danse macabre and the English mystery plays — one of which, The Deluge from the Chester cycle, was, at Auden’s bidding, coupled with The Dance of Death in two private performances by the Group Theatre in 1934.

But if this was to some degree a swerving from Eliotic influence, it was surely also an illustration of the common tendency to idealize medieval society, to understand it as having had a unity of purpose and (as Eliot would say) sensibility that the modern world so noticeably lacks. If Eliot fixed on the last years of Elizabeth I as his Golden Age, Auden usually looked further back.[21] And above all what he found in that earlier time was a significant public role for poets, and for artists more generally. It was largely in hopes of restoring or recovering such a role for poets that he wrote plays and served as ‘secretary of ideas’ for the Group Theatre.[22]

But Auden was aware of the temptations of nostalgia, and understood that it could quickly render inauthentic any would-be appropriation of the poetic or cultural past. From the start of his career he had been determined to write poetry of the world he actually lived in, and his propensity for working industrial equipment, power stations, airplanes, and (especially) pylons into his verse was so immediately noticeable that it quickly became a focus for parody. All of his plays have contemporary settings. For Auden medieval drama exemplified a public poetry rooted in its lifeworld, but for that very reason its protocols and techniques could not simply be transferred to another and radically different time. The example of the medieval dramatists had to be followed, rather than their productions imitated. And Auden devoted a great deal of his poetic energies in the decade of the Thirties to following that example, especially in the plays he wrote with Christopher Isherwood.

But even as Auden worked so hard in and for the theater (as theorist, as manifesto writer, as ‘secretary of ideas,’ as solitary and collaborative playwright), he was simultaneously working at the development of another kind of public poetry — as though he were preparing for the possible failure of his projects in drama. Auden throughout the Thirties sought to develop a public poetry that did not require for its sustenance the apparatus of the theater. Almost from the beginning of his career, Auden understood that public poetry comes in more than one variety. In a journal entry from 1929, he asked: ‘Do I want poetry in a play, or is Cocteau right: ‘There is a poetry of the theatre, but not in it’?’[23] The different versions of ‘Stop all the clocks’ indicate that several years later he had not decided whether his poetry should live inside or outside the theater — or rather, that he was seeking to maintain a double poetic presence, patrolling a boundary that demarcated genres and social institutions alike. ‘Stop all the clocks’ stands at the juncture of these two related but different attempts to reassociate the poetic sensibility and reinvigorate the public sphere.


The Modernist emphasis on the dramatic as the impersonal — Pound’s personae, Yeats’s masks, Joyce’s (or Stephen Dedalus’s) deus absconditus paring his fingernails — is well known. What is less well known is the history that we have seen a bit of in the preceding pages: the transformation of that emphasis in the next generation of British writers, especially in Auden. (Following the example of Paul Fussell, I will call Auden and his contemporaries the Moderns as opposed to the Modernists.[24]) The dramatic is important to Auden not because it is impersonal and hence a repudiation of the Romantic cult of personality: his immediate poetic predecessors had worked that line of argument about as thoroughly as it could be worked. Instead, the drama for him represented the public and the communal. In this respect Eliot, as his comments on poetic drama and the music hall indicate, serves as a kind of bridge between the two generations. (Imagine Yeats saying such things about Marie Lloyd! She utterly lacked the cachet of the Galway peasant.)

The Modernists and the Moderns alike write plays. But when they employ other poetic genres in which there is the possibility of retaining at least some of the characteristics of drama they make very different choices. As Carol Christ has so effectively argued, the Modernists prove themselves to be the true heirs — not, after all, the enemies — of the Victorian poets by making the dramatic monologue their normative genre (see especially her second chapter). This supports their anti-Romanticism, because it allows for the creation of a poetic persona clearly marked as different from that of the author. But Auden — who was followed in this practice by others, but led the way in this as in so much else — wrote almost no dramatic monologues: instead he wrote songs.

The speaker, or rather the singer, of a song is not necessarily, and in some cases demonstrably not, the poet. The singer-songwriter is a creation of the 1960’s, and as a cultural standard owes almost everything to Bob Dylan — who had inherited it from bluesmen like Robert Johnson and folk singers like Woody Guthrie. But the pre–1960’s popular song invested very little energy in creating a distinctive personality for its singer: the character expressed in a song lyric is attenuated and stylized, typical rather than idiosyncratic. ‘Stop all the clocks’ features a bereaved lover, not J. Alfred Prufrock or Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. And in this it shows itself to be truly derived from the songs of the music hall or the cabaret.

This heritage is nicely limned in Richard Hoggart’s famous account of working-class life in early twentieth-century England, The Uses of Literacy. In the sections devoted to music, he describes the semi-professional singers who performed at ‘working-men’s clubs,’ clubs that retained the characteristics of an ‘older environment,’ that of the music halls (in Hoggart’s childhood the music hall had been displaced by the cinema). Hoggart contrasts the singing style favored in such clubs with the more idiosyncratic approach of American ‘crooners’:

The manner of singing is traditional and has fixed characteristics. It is meant to embody intense personal feeling, but is much less egocentrically personal and soft-in-the-middle than the crooning styles; it aims to suggest a deeply felt emotion (for the treachery of a loved one, for example), but the emotion has not the ingrown quality shown by the crooners. With the crooners, … one is in the world of the private nightmare; here [in the clubs], it is still assumed that deep emotions about personal experiences are something all experience and in a certain sense share.[25]

Moreover, when Hoggart notes the unpopularity in England of certain well-known American songs, he attributes that failure to ‘the lack of sufficiently generalised emotion’[26]: they are insufficiently typical, one might say too much like the dramatic monologue. Few of us are inclined to sing along with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ But in ‘Stop all the clocks,’ the rich profusion of tropes makes the simply direct last line, which calls attention to itself by the measured tread of its six stresses (‘For nothing now can ever come to any good’), exceptionally potent: it can be readily echoed by bereaved lovers, or lovers who can imagine bereavement. Its emotion is ‘sufficiently generalised.’

Hoggart’s description of the musical preferences of the working-class English is relevant to Auden’s songs in another way as well. Earlier I mentioned, briefly, the way that ‘Stop all the clocks’ seems to hover between pathos and parody, and this is true of many of Auden’s songs. In the 1958 Selected Poems, for instance, the second of the ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’ also combines the stunningly new and the banal in a way that can almost make a reader queasy:

O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; ‘O Johnny, let’s play’:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away. [27]

That’s the first stanza; by the last the effect is surreal:

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You’d the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

Hoggart makes it clear that the working-class people who listened raptly to sentimental songs knew perfectly well that the songs were sentimental, and that some kind of corrective was sometimes called for, perhaps in the form of parody. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘the limits of this are intuitively defined: I once heard a young man deliver his own mocking version of a popular sentimental song, and not only fail to make the company laugh, but raise in them the strong, though unexpressed, sense that he had been guilty of a lapse of taste. He … had not so much laughed affectionately at the emotions as destroyed them’.[28] What is remarkable and disorienting about Auden’s practice is that he combines the direct expression of emotion and its parody in a single song in such a way that it becomes hard to distinguish affectionate laughter from destructive contempt.

This technique places a great responsibility on the reader, who must find her way through this passional maze or accept being lost in it. For the actual listener of the song the problem can be (though it is not always) simplified by the music written for the poet’s words. In the case of ‘Stop all the clocks,’ Benjamin Britten decided to play it straight in the tune he wrote for its Ascent of F6 version, for, though those lyrics are still stranger and apparently more parodic than the ones the appear in Auden’s collections (see note 4 above), listeners seem to have been deeply moved by the song: Christopher Isherwood refers to it as an ‘overwhelming funeral dirge’, while Michael Sidnell calls it a ‘magnificent blues number’.[29]

Without the music, though, the reader is on her own, and judgments about Auden’s songs can be diverse indeed. For instance, ‘Miss Gee,’ one of the ballads Auden was so fond of writing in this period, describes the illness and death, from cancer, of a repressed spinster. To me, and to a number of other critics, this is a sober and sobering poem; but Valentine Cunningham refers to it as one of Auden’s ‘savagely jaunty sick-joke lyrics’,[30] and when Christopher Isherwood found out that Auden wanted to write a ballad about Isherwood and his boyfriend Heinz, he ‘objected absolutely’ to having his experiences depicted in the ‘heartless comic style’ of ‘Miss Gee’.[31]

One can imagine several motives for Auden’s writing this ambiguous kind of song. For Michael Sidnell — describing similar tendencies in the verse of Auden’s plays — ‘in such verse Auden seems to be working both sides of the stylistic street. If it was taken at face value as the language of poetic tragedy (as it often was) well and good; if not, the bolt hole of burlesque had been prepared’.[32] There is probably something to this view; Auden was not above playing games with his audience (especially in political matters, about which, throughout the Thirties, he was more ambivalent than he felt he could acknowledge himself to be). But whatever he was up to in his plays, it may well be that in his songs Auden was taking the public and dialogical dimensions of such verse seriously — seriously enough to encourage the reader/listener to become a co-maker with him, a participant in the establishment and elaboration of poetic meaning. In the absence of the complex context of the theater, Auden in poems like ‘Stop all the clocks’ may have been violating the singularity typically associated with the lyric voice in order to build a kind of community of voices: song becomes the means by which a ‘partial’ (and quite temporary) public sphere is established.

In ‘Stop all the clocks’ a number of voices may be discerned. We have, of course, the modern inventive poet with his ‘original’ tropes (e.g., the white ‘public doves’ whose necks bear funereal bows); but there is also, especially in the third stanza, the exaggeration conventional to popular love poems and poetic elegies alike; and the methodical deconstruction of the cosmos depicted in the final stanza reads like a parodic inversion of creation myths, or nursery rhymes. Are these competing or complementary ways of representing loss? If one understands the lyric voice to be essentially singular — as is common in post-Romantic reflection upon the genre of lyric — then the song must be convicted of vocal incoherence. But this is to neglect an ancient tradition of lyric poetry, one which despite its great lineage is so little understood that it has no agreed-upon name. Nietzsche, who is responsible more than anyone else for calling this tradition to the modern attention (in The Birth of Tragedy), uses its old Greek name and names it the dithyrambic; W. R. Johnson in his admirable The Idea of Lyric seeks a somewhat broader designation and calls it the choral.

Johnson, who mentions Auden but rarely, seems to be invoking the Auden we have been investigating when he writes that, ‘if the name of choral has almost disappeared from our literary vocabulary, the choral imagination and the choral act have, so far from disappearing, made an extraordinary comeback in modern times.’ The choral lyric is necessary, contends Johnson, because ‘Human beings have, after all, not only private emotions and selves but also public emotions and selves.’ The role of the ‘solo lyric’ may be, in part, to ‘clarify the limits and the nature of the private self’; but ‘the choral poet imagines those emotions which lead us to want to understand both the possibility of our communion with each other and the possibility of our communion with the world… . [T]he modern choralists, in their different ways, attempt to countervail [the characteristically modern] process of alienation by reaffirming our kinship with each other and with the world that begets us and nourishes us’.[33]

This is the specifically literary tradition on which Auden draws as he writes his songs and ballads of the Thirties. It dovetails neatly, I think, with the tradition of popular music discussed earlier, especially in its need for a properly typical and stylised representation of emotion: the energies of ‘Stop all the clocks’ derive from Pindar and Marie Lloyd alike. Such emotive representation draws explicitly on readily identifiable artistic models in order to emphasize its continuity with other utterances, other people, a continuity which yields at least a momentary sense of community.

But is this ‘sense of community’ in any way authentic? Can the solitary reader of a poem ever experience what Hoggart’s (perhaps idealised) participants in the culture of the working-men’s clubs knew? Can she even feel what the audience at The Ascent of F6 felt?[34] These are questions that take on ever greater significance as the music halls, and the working-class culture described by Hoggart, retire further into the recesses of the past; and, as Faber allows The Ascent of F6 to go out of print while collections and selections of Auden’s poems succeed one another with impressive regularity. The community in the reader’s mind may be the only one which poets can now hope to cultivate.


I have said that Auden resisted nostalgia. But as the Thirties drew to a close, along with his theatrical partnership with Christopher Isherwood — and as the doubts I have enumerated grew stronger in his mind — the nostalgic note began to creep into his critical writings, and as it did so the Eliotic influence which Auden had earlier tried to suppress found its outlet.

The great project of the Group Theatre was failing, as perhaps it had to. Its hope to become a place of meeting and reconciliation for the classes of Britain never was realised. Though it repeatedly announced its solidarity with working people, the reality was rather different, as Valentine Cunningham explains (citing a 1935 article in the New Statesman):

Group’s handful of Sunday nighters were scarcely the masses: ‘small Sabbatical assemblies’ of bourgeois Lefties in ‘juvenile beards, dark-blue shirts, and horn-rimmed spectacles, which are not the representative insignia of the working class,’ was how Ivor Brown saw them… . Brown couldn’t ‘see much point’ in audiences who ‘either see the point of the propaganda already or see the point of nothing but their own importance.’ The amateurism of the Group’s acting was often criticised; more damagingly, [Stephen] Spender found Auden and Isherwood’s plays ‘undergraduate smoker’ (he meant Oxford and Cambridge) stuff. Group was run, in fact, very like an undergraduate society, with its programme cards, bottle parties, and its intimate revues before invited audiences. A comparison Auden cannot have found welcome.[35]

The comparison would certainly have been unwelcome: Auden’s hopes for the Group Theatre, and for English poetic drama more generally, involved their bringing him and people like him out of the narrow world of the intellectual cadres and into the society from which they had been exiled not only by the persistence of the British class system but also by (as we shall see) the advent of Romantic aesthetic isolationism. Auden had no interest in a very partial public sphere which deceived itself into believing that it was the universal one. As it became clear that his theatrical work was not succeeding in its integrating mission, he turned more and more to the choral or dithyrambic traditions which I have just outlined — but could not see them as offering the social salvation which he had earlier hoped to find in the theater.

In 1938 Auden edited The Oxford Book of Light Verse and, strange to say, did so in such a way that the task came to illuminate the questions with which this essay is occupied. In Auden’s utterly idiosyncratic definition, light verse is written ‘when the things in which the poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one.’ In such a case the poet ‘will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech’.[36] Auden is at pains to insist that ‘light verse can be serious,’ and that it is only because we still live ‘under the social conditions which produced’ Romanticism that we fail to understand this. Since the Romantics, ‘it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes’.[37]

Romanticism is in this view the Fall of Poetry, or more specifically an especially tragic consequence of the Fall of Society. Auden explicitly invokes what Raymond Williams calls the myth of the ‘organic community of Old England’[38]: ‘As the old social community broke up, artists were driven to the examination of their own feelings and to the company of other artists. They became introspective, obscure, and highbrow’.[39] The ‘interests and perceptions’ of the post-Romantic poet ‘are not readily acceptable to his society’; he is, therefore, ‘acutely aware of himself as the poet, and his method of expression may depart very widely from the normal social language’.[40] As it happens, this is a pretty good description of Auden’s early lyric poetry, so famous for its obscurity; but it is just what he sought to avoid in the plays he wrote alone or with Isherwood.

One might infer from the passages just quoted that Auden like Eliot longs for an unselfconscious absorption in the rituals and practices of an organic community, but this is not quite so. ‘The more homogeneous a society, the closer the artist is to the everyday life of his time, the easier it is for him to communicate what he perceives, but the harder for him to see honestly and truthfully, unbiased by the conventional responses of his time. The more unstable a society, and the more detached from it the artist, the clearer he can see, but the harder it is for him to convey it to others.’ Either extreme, absorption or detachment, disables the artist from productive engagement with society. What is called for, Auden posits, is a productive tension, in which the poet is ‘still sufficiently rooted in the life of his age to feel in common with his audience,’ but the society as a whole is ‘in a sufficient state of flux for the age-long beliefs and attitudes to be no longer compulsive on the artist’s vision.’ Was there a time in the history of English literature when this balance was best achieved, when the tension was most productive? Yes: it was the Elizabethan age.[41]

Here the young lion of English poetry unexpectedly rejoins Old Possum; the hero of the intellectual Left meets the voice of classicism, royalism, anglo-Catholicism. But let us also note that Auden’s picture of Elizabethan requires less unanimity than Eliot’s; it is actually closer to the Habermasian claim (noted in the Introduction to this volume) that ‘a lifeworld in which cultural traditions are open to criticism’ is the medium in which civil society can best flourish. Moreover, at the end of this odd introduction Auden seeks once more to keep Eliot at arm’s length. He does so by reminding himself of the larger socio-political context in which nostalgia is unacceptable:

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.[42]

Or, as Eliot had written twenty years earlier, ‘Tradition … cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour’.[43] But Auden is arguing for neither royalism nor aristocracy, but ‘a democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice, as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few.’ Only ‘in such a society will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity,’ to write what Auden calls light verse: ‘For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free’.[44]

This is indeed a compelling vision, as far as it goes. But on the obviously vital question of how such a society may be achieved, Auden is silent. There is no hint from him that the drama, or any other form of art, could contribute to the formation of a genuine public sphere. In this sense he repudiates the dream Eliot first formulated in ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,’ and seems covertly to employ the Marxist distinction between base and superstructure: the whole introduction implies that art, as a superstructural phenomenon, is utterly dependent for its health and its character on the health and character of the economic base. Socio-political conditions determine poetry, not the other way around; and the social conditions which produced Romanticism may not be reversible.[45]

Already in 1936 Auden had written in The Highway (the magazine of the Workers’ Educational Association), ‘personally the kind of poetry I should like to write but can’t is ‘the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people’’ (English 360); but by the end of the decade he was wondering if anyone could write that kind of truly choral or dithyrambic poetry, and, if they could, whether it would make any difference. Less than a year after writing the introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse Auden would sound a note for which he would later become notorious. This is from the defense counsel’s speech in ‘The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats’ (an essay, in the guise of courtroom arguments, which takes up the vexed question of Yeats’s politics):

Art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged. (393)

Many experiences led Auden to this disillusionment about the public role of art — not least the history of the Group Theatre — but one, perhaps, was crucial. Like many European and American artists he had gone to Spain during the Civil War there and tried to serve the Republican side; but he was frustrated not only by his own inability to make a difference (and that of almost all his fellow artists, whom he came to see as playing a self-gratifying and ultimately self-deceptive game) but also by his discovery that the Spanish war was not as morally unambiguous as the artistic partisans of the Republicans were leading everyone to think. Among the many atrocities committed by Republican supporters, one in particular stood out for Auden in a way that, at the time, he could not understand:

On arriving in Barcelona [in January 1937], I found as I walked through the city that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed. The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then? (Pike 41)

Thus even as he was writing what many thought the great poetic anthem of the Spanish Civil War, ‘Spain’ (with its refrain ‘But to-day the struggle’), he knew he was telling only a small portion of what he knew to be true, and was therefore for all practical purposes lying. Which is why ‘Spain’ and political poems like it — most notably the famous ‘September 1, 1939’ — were later condemned by Auden and excluded from his Collected Poems.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Auden’s loss of faith not just in the politically transformative power of art (in which he never had full confidence) but in any social role for art would lead him to search for another faith — the one represented by the closed and shuttered churches of Barcelona.

When Auden came to America, he retained his interest in and commitment to poetic drama; but he had shed the political imperatives which which shaped the projects he and Isherwood pursued in the Thirties. His first poetic drama in America was a collaboration with Benjamin Britten on the operetta Paul Bunyan — a distinctively American subject to match Auden’s new country; a subject indebted to the folk sources of American culture (just as The Dance of Death had drawn on English folk sources like the Mummers’ Play); but a work with no pretense whatever to political relevance or social leadership. From this beginning Auden went on, with Chester Kallmann, to the rarefied air of opera proper. It is not likely that the masses would have much interest in a libretto about the hubris of a modern artist (Elegy for Young Lovers) or an adaptation of a play by Euripides (The Bassarids), especially when the words are accompanied by the dissonant tonalities and strange orchestrations of Hans Werner Henze. Auden was free to pursue such projects precisely because he was a Christian: if God had saved the world, the artist didn’t have to, and the project of reconstituting the public sphere only made sense if it were conducted within the context of Christian theology. To such hopes and dreams poetry (whether private or public, dramatic or lyric) is utterly irrelevant, which is why Auden makes this request in one of his greatest poems, ‘At the Grave of Henry James’:

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
For the treason of all clerks. (Collected 312)

Eliot too seems to have lost his hopes for public poetry, as he abandoned the experimental Sweeney Agonistes and the explicitly, insistently communal lyrics he wrote for The Rock (a church pageant, of all things) in favor of a set of rather conventional Shaftesbury Avenue plays, starting with The Family Reunion in 1939. It is noteworthy that as Eliot strove to learn the craft of theatrical writing he was also developing, in The Idea of a Christian Society (which was delivered as a series of lectures in the very month that The Family Reunion debuted in London) and Notes toward the Definition of Culture (1948), a theology of culture — a project in which Eliot retains his old preoccupation with cultural unity but in which literature has no evident place.

As for Auden, it is no accident that one of his closest friends and deepest influences in his first years in America was Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian of the public realm, who never for a moment would have taken seriously any claims by poetry to orient and give structure to society. That is theology’s job. So perhaps it is not surprising that, just as Auden’s quest for a theater of social integration metamorphosed into a desire to write words in service of music — Auden always insisted on the subordinate role of the librettist (see, e.g., Dyer’s 473) — his dithyrambic or choral songs were replaced by a fascination with occasional poetry and a virtual compulsion to dedicate poems to friends. Auden became a proponent of local culture — the chief locality being the page on which a poem is printed. The poet as liberator became the poet as servant, the poet as friend. As Lucy McDiarmid has argued, much of Auden’s later poetry takes the form of a retractio: an oft-repeated act of penitence for his former and long-standing poetic arrogance. In Auden’s Christian understanding this change in tone and restriction of ambition represent moral and spiritual progress; but those with a higher view of the potential social value of art have not always been so complimentary.[46]


In some respects it is clear why things fell out this way for Auden and Eliot. Neither man had a particular gift for dramatic composition. Eliot understood and admitted this deficiency, yet determined to overcome it;[47] Auden, as far as I know, never admitted his limitations directly, but acknowledged them by recruiting collaborators — Christopher Isherwood in the Thirties and Chester Kallman after his move to America — who could provide him with narrational and structural forms upon which he could poetically elaborate. The critical consensus is that neither poet ever wrote a wholly successful play, and on a more general level it is intriguing that the great English modernists (particularly Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats) tended to celebrate the drama, or the dramatic, in ways that later critics would take careful note of without ever bothering to pay much attention to the plays those modernist titans wrote. Few courses in modern British literature include Exiles or The Countess Cathleen.

It is conceivable that larger cultural forces are at work here, that, for instance, as literacy and the habit of literary reading increased people became less comfortable with, or felt less need for, the public experience of going to the theater; or (more likely) that they ceased to think of the theater as a place where their more refined tastes could find satisfaction. Middlebrow drama — from J. M. Barrie and Arthur Pinero to J. B. Priestly and Terence Rattigan — dominated the London stage in the first half of this century, but surely this is the usual state of affairs wherever the drama flourishes. Even acknowledged masters of their craft like Brecht, Pirandello, and Beckett are perennially unlikely candidates for boffo box-office; what then can the less practiced and accomplished highbrow dramatist hope for?

To take a still longer and broader perspective, we have Michael Sidnell’s sobering contention, in his excellent history of the Group Theatre, that attempts to reclaim legitimate public space by means of the theater will inevitably fail:

The attempt to create a theatre in which actors, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, poets, and a ‘participating audience’ would engage in collaborative creation informed the European theatre at its very beginnings and has eluded it ever since. If such a ‘total theatre’ is impossible to achieve it may be because — as theorists from Aristotle to Brecht have explained — the consuming reality of ritual actions is incompatible with a thoroughly self-conscious art.[48]

If, as some of the Romantics dreamed, the Fall into Self-Consciousness can be reversed, this incompatibility is not eternal; there is hope for reconciliation of dramatic art and the community. But in any case the ‘total theatre’ must happen, it cannot be willed into existence; a viable public culture will create the ‘total theatre’, not the other way around.

This seems to be, as I have argued, the conclusion reached not just by Auden but also by Eliot; and it is hard not to think that Christianity had a great deal to do with their reaching this conclusion. In Eliot’s case the conversion to Christianity came first, and skepticism about the cultural power of art developed gradually. But Auden’s experience was differently ordered: because he lacked religious faith he struggled mightily for several years to maintain faith in art. When he could not succeed in that work of maintenance — when his experiments in poetic drama failed and his choral songs were absorbed by the silent world of printed verse — he left his native England for an America where he hoped to start from zero. It didn’t work out that way: the Old World followed him to the New. But the nightmarish persistence of that Old World which he had fled was, ironically, instrumental in his reclamation of Christian faith and practice and in the solidification of his conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’

In November of 1939, less than two months after the Nazis completed their staggeringly rapid conquest of Poland, their own cinematic record of the victory (called Sieg in Polen) was being shown in a theater in Yorkville, a neighborhood in Manhattan then predominantly German. Not surprisingly, especially since the United States was not yet involved in the war, the moviegoers were quite sympathetic to the Nazi cause; they knew what Hitler had done to restore German pride and economic and cultural stability; many of them had come to the U. S. during the economic crises that debilitated Germany in the 1920’s.

But Auden, when he saw Sieg im Polen, was not prepared for the extremity of the viewers’ reactions to this film. Whenever the Poles appeared on the screen — always as prisoners, of course, in the hands of the Wehrmacht — the audience would shout, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’ Auden was stunned. ‘There was no hypocrisy,’ he recalled many years later: these people were unashamed of their feelings and attempted to put no ‘civilized’ face upon them. ‘I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value’.[49] On what grounds did he have a right to demand, or even a reason to expect, a more humane response? Not only was the kind of culture that supports poetry unable to shape the public sphere, unable to make anything happen; it was unable to sustain or defend itself before those who preferred evil and brutality. Late in his life Auden often said, as he did in this interview, that his inability to account for, much less justify, his own horror ‘brought [him] back to the Church.’


  1. Auden, Collected Poems (rev. ed.), ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1991), pp. 116–21.  ↩
  2. Auden, Selected Poems (New York: Random/Modern Library, 1958), pp. 31–3.  ↩
  3. In The Ascent of F6 the first two stanzas of the poem are the same, but the last two stanzas of the poem as it appears at the beginning of this essay did not appear and were apparently the result of a later revision. Here is how the song concludes in F6, where it is sung by Lord Stagmantle and Lady Isabel Welwyn over the body of James Ransom (the names in this song are those of characters in the play):  ↩
  4. For an excellent survey of Auden’s work in popular poetic genres during this period of his career, see Nicholas Jenkins’s ‘Introduction’ to some of Auden’s ‘Uncollected Songs and Lighter Poems, 1936–40’, in W. H. Auden: ‘The Language of Learning and the Language of Love’: Uncollected Writings, New Interpretations (Auden Studies 2), ed. Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 49–59.  ↩
  5. See Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber, 1933), p. 153.  ↩
  6. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1951), p. 247.  ↩
  7. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928), p. 62.  ↩
  8. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 247.  ↩
  9. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 61.  ↩
  10. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 63.  ↩
  11. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 64.  ↩
  12. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 70.  ↩
  13. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 406.  ↩
  14. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 407.  ↩
  15. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 407. Raymond Williams has provided a shrewd and precise account of the commonly used contrast in modern British thought between the ‘organic’ and the ‘mechanical’ in a given culture (see Culture and Society: 1780–1950 [New York: Columbia UP, 1983], p. 138): the music-hall represents the former, the cinema the latter. The easy and potentially infinite reproducibility of a film is for Eliot part of the problem. (Clearly, Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ remains utterly germane to these issues.)  ↩
  16. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 135.  ↩
  17. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, p. 147.  ↩
  18. Auden, Complete Works, Volume I, p. xxii.  ↩
  19. The English Auden, p. 273.  ↩
  20. Auden, Complete Works, I:xvi. The validity of this claim is borne out by Mendelson’s analysis in Early Auden (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983), pp. 50–51. Incidentally, Auden may have first come across the Mummers’ play — an ancient but long-lived Christmas pantomime — in his beloved Hardy’s The Return of the Native, where a performance of it plays a key role in the developing relationship of Bathsheba Everdene and Clym Yeobright.  ↩
  21. But not as far back as Yeats with his celebration of ‘Byzantium in the age of Justinian’ or Pound with his praise for the Troubadours and Trouveres; the High Middle Ages were more to Auden’s taste, even if he tended to identify with populist figures like Langland. This particular kind of idealization of the past, with its emphasis on social harmony and religious and intellectual unity, is neatly skewered by Raymond Williams in the famous second chapter of his The Country and the City (New York: Oxford UP, 1977).  ↩
  22. So Rupert Doone, the artistic director of the Group, called him. See Michael Sidnell, Dances of Death: the Group Theatre of London in the Thirties (London: Faber, 1984), p. 24.  ↩
  23. The English Auden, p. 301.  ↩
  24. Paul Fussell, ‘Modernism, Adversary Culture, and Edmund Blunden’, in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Ballantine, 1988), p. 211.  ↩
  25. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992), p. 113.  ↩
  26. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 118.  ↩
  27. Auden, Selected Poems (1958), p. 32, and The English Auden, p. 213.  ↩
  28. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 123.  ↩
  29. Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind (New York: Farrar, 1976), p. 268; Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 197. Sometimes, though, even music is insufficient to direct the stubborn audience. Auden’s The Dance of Death, which purports to describe the decline and fall of the bourgeoisie, ends with Karl Marx appearing on the stage to announce, ‘The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated’ (Complete Works I:107). But Marx’s arrival is heralded by a chorus singing these words to the tune of Mendelson’s wedding march (!):  ↩
  30. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 97.  ↩
  31. Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, p. 288. ‘A year or so later, Christopher withdrew his veto, fearing that he might have aborted a masterpiece. Wystan, however, said he had now forgotten all his ideas for it’.  ↩
  32. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 204.  ↩
  33. W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982), p. 177.  ↩
  34. Walter Ong has made the following sobering claim: ‘There is no collective noun or concept for readers corresponding to “audience”. The collective “readership” — this magazine has a readership of two million — is a far-gone abstraction. To think of readers as a united group, we have to fall back on calling them an ‘audience,’ as though they were in fact listeners’. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 74.  ↩
  35. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 323.  ↩
  36. The English Auden, p. 363.  ↩
  37. The English Auden, p. 364.  ↩
  38. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 11.  ↩
  39. The English Auden, p. 365.  ↩
  40. The English Auden, p. 363.  ↩
  41. The English Auden, p. 364.  ↩
  42. The English Auden, p. 368.  ↩
  43. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 4.  ↩
  44. The English Auden, p. 368.  ↩
  45. In December of 1938 Auden delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne on ‘The Future of English Poetic Drama,’ the text of which has not survived (perhaps because there was no text and the lecture was extemporaneous). But something purporting to be a transcription of Auden’s remarks has survived, and it is interesting to note that Auden apparently concluded his lecture by echoing his Light Verse introduction and connecting those ideas specifically to the question of poetic drama: ‘Now, what will happen to the stage, I do not know, but I do know this: that the search for a dramatic form is very closely bound up with something much wider and much more important, which is the search for a society which is both free and unified’. Then, hinting at the possibility of European war and the danger such war would pose to France: ‘If we sometimes, at this moment, look towards France in apprehension mingled with hope, it is because we realise that while these values have disappeared in one country after another, we know that unless they are safeguarded here, in our country liberty, culture, drama are made impossible’ (Complete Works, I:522). Here too the future of art is dependent upon the strength of the political fabric; art is not seen as a contributor to that strength.  ↩
  46. I have discussed some of these issues at length in Chapter 4 of my book, What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998).  ↩
  47. See Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, p. 285.  ↩
  48. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 257.  ↩
  49. A. Levy, ‘On Audenstrasse: In the Autumn of the Age of Anxiety’. The New York Times Magazine, 8 August (1971), pp. 10–12, 42.  ↩

The Dance of Death


The programme from the Group Theatre’s production of Auden’s verse drama The Dance of Death (1933) contains a synopsis written by Auden himself. In retrospect it seems pretty clear that the “satire on modern life” included satire on the earnest Marxists who populated the Group Theatre productions. After all, one passage near the end includes these lines, sung to the tune of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March:

Oh, Mr Marx you’ve gathered

All the material facts;

You know the economic

Reasons for our acts.

However, at the time this seems not to have been noted as irony.


(Image courtesy of the exceptionally well-prepared Wikipedia page on Auden.) 

To all of us, I believe, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Roman Empire is like a mirror in which we see reflected the brutal, vulgar, powerful yet despairing image of our technological civilization, an imperium which now covers the entire globe, for all nations, capitalist, socialist, and communist, are united in their worship of mass, technique and temporal power. What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash but that … it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope.

— W. H. Auden, 1952

Edward Wilson, an old master.

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

— W. H. Auden, “Sext”

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

— Edward Mendelson, Early Auden