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Auden's Poems of History

A number of Auden's poems from his third collection, Homage to Clio, look at various historical events, persons, and myths.  History allows the poet to assume a number of vantage points:
  • The past puts the disappointment of the modern era into perspective--with its excessive warfare, its managerial tyrants, its truth as pragmatism, and its shallow poetry
  • History explains why modern secularism came about.
  • History ultimately values that which is productive and day-to-day.   That which is tyrannical is reducible to a cipher.
  • History's muse (Clio/Virgin Mary) is silent, respecting and giving attention to the small and obedient over against the great, erotic, and violent.

Commentary & Questions

"Memorial for the City"

The poem is divided into four sections.  The first section shows us the crow and the camera looking on the battlefields of Homer's and our own time.  Auden reminds us that amidst all this pain the "crime of life is not time."  "Our grief is not Greek," rather Christian, for we are to pity but not despair before death.

The second section explores the growing secularism of Europe.  It begins in 1075 with the papal controversy between Gregory and the Holy Roman Emperor out of which comes a new sense of Europe as a whole.  The poem moves to focus on concerns with Muslim invasion ("infidel faces"), the Crusades ("suspicious tribes combined/ To rescue Jerusalem"), and Scholasticism ("disciplined logicians"). In 1517 Luther stands up against the practices of indulgences-- "the machine that so smoothly forgave and saved/ If paid."   But the Reformation also brings with it growing doubt.  The Renaissance focuses more on human concerns and struggles, as "the groundlings wept as on a secular stage," and the Enlightenment forces Nature to confess "that she had no soul," the French Revolution of Mirabeau and the reign of Napoleon both examples of the search for "the Rational City."  Romanticism follows with Nationalism's divided loyalties "[g]uided by hated parental shades."  The last stanza perhaps describes the conditions of WWI, where the loyal die without any other faith except the city.

The third section returns to the present divided by barb-wire.  Modernity has no image to admire--"no memory, no creed, no name."  Humanity (Adam) is still waiting on the City of God.

In the fourth section, weakness speaks, recounting almost boastfully its accomplishments in a list of mythical and historical events. (Most of these references can be looked up with a good search engine online or in an encyclopedia.)  Weakness stresses that it is not impressed with the claims of the city, but will wait to see her judged at the resurrection.

Questions

  1. Why does the poem open with Julian of Norwich's stress on the bodily life?

  2. What is overall logic or structure of the poem's argument?

  3. Why end with the boasts of weakness?


"The Shield of Achilles" through "The Managers"

In "The Shield of Achilles," Thetis, the mother of the ancient epic hero, Achilles, looks three times for the scenes of ancient classical life, but instead sees scenes of modern warfare.

In "Secondary Epic," the poet recalls Book Six of the Aeneid where the spirit of Anchises in the underworld prophecies to his son Aeneas the future of Rome up through the Caesers of Virgil's time.  Auden suggests that we cannot overlook the fall of Rome, a Catholic emperor to an Arian invader.

"Makers of History" points out that serious historians prefer the study of artifacts to the study of ancient wars with their maps and speeches.  The war heroes of the past all become condensed into a demi-god of legendary significance.  History prefers the useful and inquisitive to warriors.

"T the Great" recalls the reign of Tamberlaine, who once was the scourge of lives and the center of the theodicy problem, only to be replaced by Napoleon, then Stalin, so that now Tamberlaine is a problem for a crossword anagram.

"The Managers" contrasts the excessive life of ancient kings with the banality of modern tyrants who must live their lives like bureaucrats.

Questions

  1. Summarize Auden's views of ancient and modern warfare in these poems.

  2. What does Auden praise in these poems?  Give some examples.


"The Epigoni" through "The Old Man's Road"

"The Epigoni" refer to the "less distinguished generation" of Latin poets who wrote at the end of the Roman Empire.   Such poets need not call on the god of poetry, Apollo, and have no reason to deny that their own deaths are coming. So in awaiting the end, how is one to behave?  They could have written poems of loud grief about their doom; instead, they wrote measured, small verse, which can be dismissed by scholars in a shallow age like our own.

"Bathtub Thoughts" is the address of such a poet as those in the last poem.  He addresses Auden in the present.  The two are alike.

"The Old Man's Road"  describes the course an old Roman road takes in Britain.  The road is now used by tinkers and youth, ones not noticed by the State.  It is a road unconcerned with history in all its powerful excesses, and is therefore, free of them.

Questions

  1. If you were given the choice that the Epigoni had, what would you choose and why?

  2. Is Auden correct to assert that large political states overlook the small?  Why or why not?


"The History of Science" & "The History of Truth"

"The History of Science" suggests that there is a fourth brother who chooses the way of science with its square tower, silver treasure, and short brunette.  Such treasure can be found by mistake or chance.

"The History of Truth" compares the early age's pursuit of truth as found in a "world of lasting objects" notwithstanding its use of myths.  For the modern age, truth is pragmatic, "convertible to kilowatts."

Question: Do the two poems share a similar view of truth?


"Homage to Clio"

"[Y]ou were so much in my mind while I was writing it, as the only person I know who will understand my Anglican problem:--Can one write a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary without being 'pi' [excessively obvious]?   The Prots don't like her and the Romans want bleeding hearts and sobbing tenors.   So here is my attempt which I submit to your severe, theological and feminine eye."
--Letter to Ursula Niebuhr, Corpus Christi 1956.

stanzas 1-4: The hill has "submitted" to Spring with its grass, flowers, and birds. The speaker is surrounded by animals of "sharper senses." To them, he is "unsafe as / So many areas are." To such beasts , his book is dead, Such creatures are the subjects of sex (Aphrodite) and violence (Artemis), in whose realm no shape or color is unwarranted.

stanzas 5-8: Humans have to face up to Clio's silence. (Throughout Clio can be understood as History and the Virgin Mary.) Her silence challenges our pornographic dreams, for her silence stands between us and our instinct ("any magical centre/ Where things are taken in hand."). The rooster, too, is a symbol of our sexual desire, as is our discomfort with our own parents having sex to procreate us.

stanzas 9-11: While it isn't nice to grieve, it is better to do so than be a creature of instinct without regret.  If we were creatures of instinct, we wouldn't need forgiveness, nor would it follow that the "innocent" suffer, innocence being a moot point.  We know to account for sex and violence, but it is the "Madonna of silences, to whom we turn."

stanzas 12-15: We look for mercy in Clio.   How can she be described? Not like the perfect, sensuous statues of Aphrodite and Artemis, but as an unnoticed girl who cares for a baby or mourns a lost loved one.   She defends by her silence "the unique/ Historical fact" of the one beheld.

stanzas 16-18: This is a silence that "the Big" rarely pay attention to; thus, Clio has many in pain to listen to.   It also explains why political rulers (e.g. The Short, The Bald, etc.) are finally supercilious because obedient lives make a music from silence/obscurity.

stanzas 19-21: Auden asks Clio to "forgive our noises" and teach us what to remember.  A force like Aphrodite would teach us never to ignore others' faults, but forgiveness does just that.  Auden refuses to ask her to bless the poets because what they do is not essential to what she does.

Questions

  1. Contrast Aphrodite and Artemis with Clio/Mary.   How does Auden assign them different roles and realms?

  2. Why would Auden associate Mary with Clio, the Muse of History?

  3. Is Auden's notion of history in this poem consistent with the ones above?  Why or why not?

  4. Is Auden right about Mary's lack of interest in the poets? [Review Alan Jacobs' comments on this from "Auden and the Limits of Poetry."

"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