|W. H. Auden from 1940 to 1942, the same years as his
return to the Anglican church, wrote a number of poems that struggle with the conflict
between self-willed love and grace-given love. The former he suggested is really
only a mask for our desires and need to rule ourselves. It inevitably results in
personal, and even political, violence. The later is a gift of grace, involves
forgiveness, a sense of our limitations, and is accompanied by suffering. It is best
expressed by praise, which calls us out from ourselves.
"The Dark Years"
Set against the backdrop of WWII, "The Dark Years" looks
at the world of violence and death and compares the responses of that of the ego-driven
will and that of grace-inspired praise.
stanzas 1-8: set the stage for the ego's disappointment at
the "world of time" (daily life) in comparison to the timeless world of dreams.
Auden speaks in understated ways of war's conditions: "the noise or the
people," "shadows with enormous grudges," "whipping websters"
(the Fates), "the changing complexion along with the woods," "while
blizzards havoc the garden."
stanzas 9-11: The ego wishes to return to the world as
ideal--"hanging gardens of Eros/ and the moons of a magical summer." But
instead, one is in a world as a labyrinth, where "either/ we are found or lose
ourselves for ever."
stanzas 12-14: What way are we to follow before such
bewildering times, times that promise us death? Auden contrasts Jesus with the
Judas-like betrayal of the existential abyss.
stanzas 15-18: Before such a situation, repentance
("formal contrition") is needed; we need to embrace both the positive and
negative ways of knowing God. We need to praise God in his infinite eternity, as
well as Christ the Logos' incarnation in human flesh. Auden in particular focuses on
John chapter one in the last few lines.
"In Sickness and in Health"
A meditation on the conditions of love and (via the
title) marriage, "In Sickness and in Health" compares the conditions of a
destructive, self-serving love with the conditions of a sacrificial, reasonable marriage.
stanzas 1-4: Forgiveness is essential; without
it, one is making only surface-level claims about love. We especially need to
remember this in a time of war when satanic forces ("the Black Dog") are
subjecting the world to such famine and destruction. The kingdom of Eros is,
likewise, a kingdom of famine and destruction. Its world is that of "warped
mirrors" in which the lovers see themselves and of a "will-to-order."
One can only love when one truly understands the costs is caring for another life,
"a ruining speck, one tiny hair."
stanzas 5-6: Auden examines two different
myths of sexual illusion and predation. The lovers Tristan and Isolde put off
consummation and thereby build up to their final passion, then die rather than let
Isolde's maid, Brangaene, call them back to mundane love. Don Juan moves from lover
to lover-- like " a helpless, blind/ Unhappy spook, he haunts the urinals."
Auden suggests that both of these distortions lead to a political sublimation of
desire, where "the disobedient phallus" is substituted "for the
stanzas 7-9: True love asks us to approach
each other from a position of weakness. Auden quotes Kierkegaard: "Before God,
we are always in the wrong." In the face of our petty, selfish loves which are
tohu-bohu ("without form and void" Gen 1:2), we are commanded by Christ to
rejoice, for it is rejoicing that brings form to our void, that teaches the dance its
pattern. Our loves "exist by grace of the Absurd." Only a vow will
keep us from trying to be little gods.
stanzas 10-12: Self-praise is but a form of
sublimated desire. Auden prays that God ("O Essence of creation") might
move us to seek him in the physical world. Yet so that we do not make the mistake Paul
describes in Romans chapter one of worshipping the creation instead of the Creator, may we
be moved with a love of God in our "intellectual motions." [Is there an implicit
stanzas 13-14: The "round O of
faithfulness" is both spiritual ecstasy and the wedding band. Auden prays that such a
commitment never end up an empty form that mocks real virtue and exposes itself to
temptation. Over against romance, Auden recommends sober love that is preserved
"from presumption and delay." Our future, like the Christian kiss of greeting (felix
osculum), should remain mysterious; better to walk in "the ordinary way."
"Many Happy Returns"
A birthday celebration for John Rettger, age seven, son
of James Rettger (a professor of English at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor the same
time as Auden). "Many Happy Returns" is a study in our playacting in the world,
one that can be given over to pride or a sense of our limitations.
stanzas 1-7: After toying with the
astrological signs of their birthdays, Auden playfully suggests to John that he learn how
to see life as a kind of stage where everyone is acting to some extent. However,
beware because such knowledge can lead to "Man's unique temptation," which is
pride. Only God can give someone a new or different role in the play of life.
stanzas 8-10: Birthdays, then, are a kind of
allowable playing at pride because they also remind us of our limitations as human beings.
stanzas 11-18: It would be a mistake to wish
him success; he should be aware of his own troubles and not be ashamed of suffering.
Wit needs sorrow. Self-knowledge is a kind of temptation, which Auden sets
over against Whitehead's notion of "negative prehension," a kind of tacit way
that cultures go about important things without being self-aware of them. Instead
Auden wishes for John a balanced life (Tao)--intellect with the senses ; Socratic
questions with the Socratic assurance of the daimon.
"Mundus et Infans"
This poem explores the delights and natural selfishness
of infancy, as well as the differences between such a hunger and true love.
stanzas 1-3: Auden touches on the child who
kicks the mother in the womb, demands his milk for free, sleeps, and operates in a world
where no distinctions are yet made between oneself and others.
stanzas 4-5: The advantage of this state is
that an infant is completely honest (like the saints) and exists without shame.
stanzas 6-7: The infant's very being (cries
and bowel movements) praises God the Creator. His demands remind us again and again
that love is self-sacrificial, unlike infant hunger.
A sadder, more melancholy poem, "Canzone"
explores the rage and anger of eros, its self-will and hidden needs. The poem ends
looking to praise and God as a way to establish true love.
stanzas 1-3: Love is not freely chosen, and we
were created "from and with the world." Even our bodies are not really our
own. Our erotic appetites express themselves in all kinds of rage, regret, fury, and
political catastrophe, and what we think is love is really the desire to choose or not
choose to love.
stanzas 4-7: Our self-will is haunted and
deceptive, and the mirror of love is really a revelation of our chaotic selves, our
"blind monsters." True love doesn't excuse misdeeds done in love's name.
We are to praise God that our trails not be wasted, and we are to set aside our
self-will that true love may grow by its sorrow.
How much of Auden's understanding of eros and desire
is undergirded by psychological categories? Name some examples.
Is Auden right that political oppression/violence is,
in part, an expression of sexual desire/frustration?
Why does Auden conceive of praise as an answer to so
many of eros' problems?
Looking over the above poems, how would you
characterize the ideal (or pragmatic) state which Auden imagines for human beings?