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.