Four Poems on Encountering God

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The following four poems represent different aspects of the search for God.  They also deal with themes characteristic of Auden, such as history, the Logos, and the need for prayer.

Kairos and Logos

kairos: "not the mere duration [. . .] rather qualitatively fulfilled time, the moment that is creation and fate.  We call this the fulfilled moment, the moment of time approaching us as fate and decision" (Tillich, The Interpretation of History 128-- a work which Auden was reading at the time of this poem's composition)

logos: translated as "Word" in John 1. In Greek philosophy, an impersonal rational order that directs and controls the universe. In John's gospel, through the Word "all things were made" yet "the Word became flesh." That impersonal force becomes a personal Being (Jesus) who entered history.  John is also invoking the ancient Hebrew notion of wisdom.   To be "full of grace and truth" is to express all that Jewish tradition claimed for sophia.

The poem is divided up into four sestinas, each of which addresses a different period of Western history:

I. The ancient world with Caesar "at the centre of its vast self-love" is a world of death and degradation.  Into this world comes the "predestined love" of the Logos/Christ who sets up a church, "setting against the random facts of death/ A ground and possibility of order."

II. The medieval world is like a fairytale at first, where the unicorn Christ tells his child to set aside her dolls for the faithful roses of truth.  But she, the church, grows accustomed to the world, believes she has "the Magic-Word" of transubstantiation, and loses her innocence with fear and cruelty.  The Logos leaves her but still nurses her.

III. The Enlightenment is an order where one wakes up to a world where only reason and observation are trusted, and the stories no longer seem true.  One becomes fatherless, dependent upon perception, and believing oneself the center of meaning.

IV. Modernity faces a scientific world of infinite space and "subatomic gulfs," as well as personal, private divisions and helpless confusion.  The great answers of the past are lost.  Still, there remains the possibility of salvation even in this state.

Questions

  1. Pick our certain images, symbols, or phrases that seem to characterize each era.
  2. How does each era relate to truth and God?  Give some examples from the poem.

"Atlantis"

The search for Atlantis is a search for salvation and God.  The one who goes on the journey must travel through a number of false options to find it:

  • The Ship of Fools: the realization that we are all fools, "one of The Boys."
  • Ionia: rationalism
  • Thrace: religious fervor
  • Carthage/Corinth: sensual decadence
  • The Beach near Atlantis: the dark night of the soul, a place of suffering and loss

Auden prays that the road to Atlantis will be blessed by Hermes (language) and the Kabiri (the unconscious faculties), as well as God.

Questions

  1. How does the poem characterize each of the places that one must travel?  Give examples.
  2. Is it important that the traveler may be granted "[j]ust to peep at Atlantis/ In a poetic vision"?
  3. Why are language, the unconscious, as well as God important for this trip?

"Anthem"

This poem was written perhaps in 1944, but was given as the dedication of St. Matthew's church in 1946.  The poem has an Anglo-Saxon structure, using both alliteration and caesuras in each line.  The poem points to the doctrine of the Logos and how the Logos shapes the world of "Phenomena and numbers" by his "cognition and power."

"In Schrafft's"

What does this poem reveal about encountering God?

Questions

  1. Compare and contrast the tone of "Anthem" and "In Schrafft's."
  2. Compare and contrast the vision of God in each.   What would you label each?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding