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!)

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