The conversion of W.H. Auden

O here and now our endless journey stops.
We never left the place where we were born.

W.H. Auden wrote these lines shortly after his return to the Anglican church in October 1940 (see previous post). Humphrey Carpenter describes Auden’s conversion as follows (p.297):

The last stage in his conversion had simply been a quiet and gradual decision to accept Christianity as a true premise. The experience had been undramatic, even rather dry.

Not that there hadn’t been a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith”, but Auden had concluded that “such leaps are made in all spheres of life”. As he put it:

When the ground crumbles under their feet, [people] have to leap even into uncertainty if they are to avoid certain destruction.

Nor was he converted to a rationalistic Christianity:

He remained fully aware that there was no rational proof of the truth of Christian doctrine; he once remarked that all attempts to argue or disprove the existence of God are “returned unopened to the sender”…

Rather, he adopted for his own St Anselm’s dictum “credo ut intelligam” (“I believe in order that I may understand”):

Faith might itself be irrational, but it was the door to a system of thought which could explain the whole of human existence; and it was for such a system that he had been searching throughout his adult life.

Auden’s faith was not entirely “orthodox” or conventional, not least in “the attitude he took to his sexuality after his conversion” (which Carpenter discusses in some detail). He had hopes of converting his companion, Chester Kallman, to Christianity, as expressed in his poem “Leap Before You Look”, which concludes:

Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

But Kallman, while sympathetic to Christianity, “did not follow Auden into the Church” (and indeed, as Carpenter goes on to describe in the next chapter, their relationship soon became rather more, well, let’s say complicated).

Over time his views continued to develop, from the “Barthian, neo-Calvinist” (though still sacramental) theology into which he was converted, to a more relaxed understanding of Christianity as “a universal dance” in which “the spirit of carnival” was needed. Auden himself described his position as “Anglo-Catholic though not too spiky”; his theological influences included Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr.

A comment he made later in life is perhaps revealing:

…if I hadn’t been a poet, I might have become an Anglican bishop – politically liberal, I hope; theologically and liturgically conservative, I know.

Auden on the threshold of faith

In a previous post, we saw the personal impact that Charles Williams had on W.H. Auden in 1937. However, Auden remained a non-believer at the time of his emigration to the United States in 1939.

A visit to the cinema in Yorkville in November 1939 started Auden on a different path. As Humphrey Carpenter writes (p.282):

It was largely a German-speaking area, and the film he saw was Sieg im Poland, an account by the Nazis of their conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on the screen he was startled to hear a number of people in the audience scream “Kill them!” He later said of this: “I wondered then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value. The answer brought me back to the church.”

Carpenter observes that Auden’s many changes of ideology over the years – adopting or flirting with, variously, “post-Freudian psychology, Marxism and the liberal-socialistic-democratic outlook” – were “all based on a belief in the natural goodness of man”. However, the reaction of that cinema audience shook Auden’s belief in human goodness. Worse, it made him doubt how he could legitimately object to such inhumanity (or, indeed, the crimes of the Nazis themselves), if people were just expressing their innate evil. As he put it:

There had to be some reason why [Hitler] was utterly wrong.

For Auden, the liberalism of pre-war England was inadequate to this task. He wrote during 1940:

The whole trend of liberal thought … has been to undermine faith in the absolute. … It has tried to make reason the judge. … But since life is a changing process … the attempt to find a humanistic basis for keeping a promise, works logically with the conclusion, “I can break it whenever I feel convenient”.

In a poem written shortly after the Yorkville incident, he wrote:

Either we serve the Unconditional
Or some Hitlerian monster will supply
An iron convention to do evil by.

Auden’s search for this “Unconditional” led him to read Charles Williams’ book The Descent of the Dove, and in turn this led him to the works of Søren Kierkegaard. Auden found that Kierkegaard’s delineation of three stages of experience – “aesthetic”, “ethical” and (following the “leap of faith”) “religious” – mirrored his own experience from youth.

During the early months of 1940, Auden explored his metaphysical concerns in a long poem, “New Year Letter”. The poem concluded with a declaration similar (as Carpenter observes) to that of “September 1, 1939″:

We need to love all since we are
Each a unique particular.

But Auden “was now prepared to go beyond this general assertion of Agape”, closing the poem with an invocation that is unmistakeably knocking on the door of Christian faith (and which drew heavily from The Descent of the Dove):

O Unicorn among the cedars,
To whom no magic charm can lead us …
O Dove of science and of light,
Upon the branches of the night,
O Icthus playful in the deep
Sea-lodges that forever keep
Their secret of excitement hidden,
O sudden Wind that blows unbidden,
Parting the quiet reeds, O Voice
Within the labyrinth of choice
Only the passive listener hears,
O Clock and Keeper of the years,
O Source of equity and rest …
Disturb our negligence and chill,
Convict our pride of its offence …
Send strength sufficient for our day,
And point our knowledge on its way,
O da quod jubes, Domine.

It probably comes as no surprise, then, that by October 1940 Auden’s brother-in-law Golo Mann had noticed “that a small change was taking place in Auden’s pattern of life”:

On Sundays, he began to disappear for a couple of hours and returned with a look of happiness on his face. After a few weeks he confided in me the object of these mysterious excursions: the Episcopalian Church.

From this time, Auden “resumed the religious beliefs and practices of his childhood”, attending Holy Communion each Sunday (at the early service, to avoid hearing sermons!), and praying in private. In my next post, I’ll look in more detail at Carpenter’s discussion of Auden’s conversion.

“In the presence of this man I did not feel ashamed”

Continuing with Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden (see previous post), after a week of not reading very much I’ve now reached 1937, when Auden met Charles Williams – best known today as a member of the Inklings. Carpenter writes (p.223):

Williams, then in his early fifties, commanded adoring attention from a small but devoted circle of readers for his strange novels, best described as theological thrillers, his works on Christianity, his plays, and his poetry, all of which gave expression to his highly idiosyncratic view of the Christian religion – a view moulded by such diverse influences as Dante and Rosicrucianism.

Williams was working for the Oxford University Press, and met Auden to discuss the latter’s proposal for an Oxford Book of Light Verse. The OUP accepted this proposal, after Williams argued (in an internal memorandum after his meeting with Auden) that “it would be quite a good idea to collect Auden’s name”.

But the main impact of this meeting for Auden was rather different. He said of meeting Williams:

For the first time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity.

Carpenter observes that Auden was not alone in this. T.S. Eliot said much the same of Williams, who had (in Carpenter’s words) “an extraordinary radiance that made a profound impression; he emanated love”.

Auden later wrote:

I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man – we never discussed anything but literary business – I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving. (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many other people.)

This meeting did not immediately affect Auden’s views on religion – which, for now, remained closer to “E.M. Forster’s humanist agnosticism” (p.237) – but “it made him aware of the existence of something that seemed to him to be sanctity”.

What most struck me about this, though, was that description of the quality of true sanctity, true holiness. Good people make us feel inadequate and ashamed; holy people make us feel (however briefly) transformed, lifted up, unashamed – because they radiate the holiness of a loving and forgiving God who is in the business of transformation.

Auden and the churches of Barcelona

I’m currently reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden, and have reached Auden’s brief period in Spain during the Civil War.

Auden travelled to Spain to work as an ambulance driver on the Republican side, but ended up at something of a loose end upon his arrival in Barcelona. In contrast to the romantic view of the Republican side that tended to prevail then as it does now, Auden found the factionalised politics of the Republicans – with their bitter divisions between anarchists and pro- and anti-Stalin communists – “particularly unpleasant”.

However, it was the treatment of the churches that especially dismayed him – perhaps surprisingly given the atheist and anti-religious views which he had held since his adolescence. Carpenter quotes Auden as follows:

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.

As Carpenter observes, “to say that the churches were ‘closed’ was an understatement”. Barcelona’s fifty-eight churches had almost all been burned, and many of them demolished. This caused Auden a degree of shock that “puzzled and worried him”. As he later wrote:

The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerence, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it 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 been all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then?

I can identify with this. During my years as an atheist, I sometimes described myself as (in Woody Allen’s words) the “loyal opposition” – being more conscious than perhaps Auden was of my continued attachment to many aspects of the church, especially its music and architecture (without that making me any less vehement and outspoken in my rejection of its beliefs). But I recall a specific moment walking down the Cornmarket in Oxford, seeing St Mary Magdalen’s church, and realising how sorry I would be if the churches all became nothing more than museums.

Like Auden, the question this posed was: “If that was the case, what then?” For Auden, the answer was his return to the church within a few years of his time in Spain. For me, the answer was much the same – but only took a few months.

Hymning St Cecilia

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Today is St Cecilia’s Day, so what better way to mark it than with this (which also combines my two biggest cultural discoveries this year, Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden):

Auden’s poem is an interesting one, and frankly I wonder whether choirs that sing this piece liturgically have really attended to the words. These start off lightly, even humorously (though not without a hint of Audenesque double entendre):

And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

By the second part, things have become more subdued, though not entirely without hope:

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.

The third and final section, however, is darkest of all, with words that bring tears to the eye just to read them (let alone to hear them sung by a piercing treble solo):

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

And the choir then comes in with:

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.

With the closing words (before the final, redemptive chorus of “Blessed Cecilia…”):

Chorus: O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.

Solo: O wear your tribulation like a rose.

So this is no pious homage to the simple beauties of music. Rather, it’s an expression of how music (and its patron, and her Saviour) accompanies us, whether in the joy of “perfect calm” or in the darkness of an anguished conscience.

Auden on the Desert Fathers

I love this poem by W.H. Auden about the Desert Fathers, part of his sonnet sequence The Quest*. It was written in 1940, shortly before Auden’s return to the Church:

Spinning upon their central thirst like tops,
They went the Negative Way towards the Dry;
By empty caves beneath an empty sky
They emptied out their memories like slops,

Which made a foul marsh as they dried to death,
Where monsters bred who forced them to forget
The lovelies their consent avoided; yet,
Still praising the Absurd with their last breath,

They seeded out into their miracles:
The images of each grotesque temptation
Became some painter’s happiest inspiration,

And barren wives and burning virgins came
To drink the pure cold water of their wells,
And wish for beaux and children in their name.

(* Note: I’m not sure whether the titles on the linked page are Auden’s. They are not in the Selected Poems, suggesting that, if they were, he later thought better of them!)

Limestone, Berlusconi and “the glorious dead”

I’ve blogged before about W.H. Auden’s poem In Praise of Limestone, but it’s been much in my mind lately as I read Auden’s Selected Poems (finally caving in to the long-dawning realisation that he’s going to end up as one of my favourite poets).

It’s also rather topical for this week. The poem as a whole describes southern Italy (it was written while Auden was staying in Ischia, pictured above):

What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm?

Hard not to think of the “flirtatious male”, “never doubting / That for all his faults he is loved” whose leadership of Italy has been so dominant in recent news.

That stanza continues with a lovely interpretation of the Italian landscape as the product of a younger child’s attempts to gain attention through charm (Auden being the third of three sons, a situation with which my wife and I are very familiar!):

                                                             From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

This reminds me of the suggestion that the medieval cathedrals of northern Europe were the product of devotion to the Virgin Mary (“Mother”).

Returning to Mr Berlusconi, his insouciant dismissal of concerns about Italy’s economy (“the restaurants are full!”) suggests that he fits well Auden’s description of those:

                                                                                    unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed…

(And Auden’s surely intentional double entendre about “a good lay” fits the bill pretty well, too!)

Then there’s this, describing how Italy cannot be dismissed as easily as disdainful and patronising northern Europeans may want to assume:

                                         A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume…

On to a completely separate news story now: the furore over the wearing of Remembrance Day poppies, an annual tradition which this year seems to have hit new heights. I don’t want to get into that particular discussion, but what it has highlighted is a lack of ease in our relationship with the dead, and over what does and doesn’t “honour” them.

                                                                      But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide.

In all the arguments over what does and doesn’t honour “the war dead”, these lines remind us that this is ultimately an argument about the living, and of how we live together. “The blessed” are beyond all this – if “sins can be forgiven” and “bodies rise from the dead”.