Auden’s vocation

W.H. AudenA very interesting essay on W.H. Auden here: Auden and the Limits of Poetry.

The writer, Alan Jacobs, begins by describing Auden’s conversion to Christianity, and how this was expressed in his later poetry: in particular Horae Canonicae, which Jacobs observes “have rarely been given serious attention,” but which is (according to Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson) “arguably his greatest work”; a judgment which I am not about to disagree with.

Later in his essay, Jacobs asks why it is that Auden is so neglected by Christians today. Partly, he suggests, because of Auden’s homosexuality, an obstacle even for those Christians “quick to forgive C. S. Lewis’ peculiar liaison with Mrs. Moore, or Charles Williams’ penchant for spanking and being spanked by young women.”

Mostly, though, it is because of Auden’s “Kierkegaardian emphasis on indirect communication,” in which the Christian perspective is often present in his poetry by the absence which points towards it. This isn’t an approach that shifts many units in Christian bookshops:

This emphasis stemmed from Auden’s determination to repent of his, and his fellow poets’, prideful assertions of their own importance. But Christian readers, for the most part, don’t want their poets to be humble: being somewhat Romantic in taste, they tend to prefer their poets to be seers, prophets, “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (as Shelley put it) just as long as they are Christian seers, prophets, legislators. As they often say, they like poems that are “redemptive.” But Auden understood that nothing and no one is redemptive except Jesus Christ and thus he called Shelley’s famous line “the silliest remark ever made about poets.”

As Jacobs observes, summarising Auden’s perspective: “What can poetry add to the Incarnation or the Passion of our Lord?”

For Auden, poetry was a vocation rather than a hotline to the divine. Jacobs describes this (with some justice) as a “Lutheran” understanding:

Auden consistently repudiated the notion that poetry has any privileged access to truth, any especially sanctified role to play. Poetry was certainly his vocation, and he loved it. As Mendelson writes, “Vocation, for Auden, is the most innocent form of love, a voluntary loss of self in an object.” He knew he would be wrong not to love his work, not to achieve what he called “that eye-on-the-object look” characteristic of people who are “forgetting themselves in a function.” But he would never claim that his calling was superior to any other. In this sense he was purely Lutheran, emphasizing the dignity of every calling before God.

In his conclusion, Jacobs describes how Auden rejected as a temptation of “the Black Magician” the belief that poets can be “prophets and redeemers”. Poets, for him, can do nothing that could not be “done in some other way, by action, or study, or prayer.” But this doesn’t leave poetry without a role:

Auden uses poetry to remind us of what poetry can never give us. But, in the end, this assigns poetry a genuine and important role, as it points always beyond itself in a strangely mute witness to that of which it is unable definitively to speak.

As Auden put it in one of his poems, with which Jacobs closes his essay:

We can only
do what it seems to us we were made for, look at
this world with a happy eye
but from a sober perspective.


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