Mr. Matthew Arnold. To him, Miss Mary Augusta, his niece: “Why, Uncle Matthew, oh why, will not you be always wholly serious?
—Max Beerbohm, in a caption

But why do you take everything I say so seriously?
—W. H. Auden to Stephen Spender

W.H. Auden collected hats, at least as a younger man (he subsequently renounced them). He had a workman’s cap that he picked up in Berlin and later consigned to the fireplace after throwing up into it, a panama hat that leant him the air of a lunatic vicar (his impersonation of which always brought the house down), and a mortarboard for his more donnish moods. In his biography from 1979 of the poet, Charles Osborne suggests that “there was a strong element of the poseur, the role-player, in the mature Auden.” This proclivity for assuming different guises extended not only to Auden’s choice of fancy dress but also to his weighing of intellectual matters: “He would adopt an attitude or an intellectual position,” Osborne writes, “sometimes in order to test his own ideas, at other times to goad a response out of someone else. His intellectual ebullience was such that he could present with equal force and conviction the opposing sides of an argument, and he frequently did so.” “He always tried things on for size,” his friend Christopher Isherwood once observed.

Auden, then, was a hard fellow to pin down and, at times, hard to take seriously. For this, Auden himself was partly to blame. Whether padding about town in carpet slippers (to relieve his corns) or pounding out hymnal tunes on a friend’s piano, Auden was an anti-bohemian bohemian (“Sorry, my dear, one mustn’t be bohemian”). Amusing stories swarm around him like clouds of bees, threatening to obscure his poetry. Readers will have a favorite anecdote; mine involves Vera Stravinsky and the dessert. Auden’s housekeeping famously left much to be desired (as did the tidiness of his person). As the biographer Humphrey Carpenter tells it, Vera came to dinner at Auden and Chester Kallman’s loft on Seventh Avenue in New York City and was confronted in the washroom by a bowl of brown fluid. An unflappable Vera emptied the bowl, refilling it with clean water, as any considerate (not to say sainted) guest might do. It was only later, after the meal, that she learned to her chagrin that she had flushed Chester’s pudding down the sink.

When Auden left the apartment in 1972, the Salvation Army refused to take his furniture.

Auden’s friends swapped tales of squalor. Robert Wilson, who ran the Phoenix Bookstore in Greenwich Village for thirty years, often visited Auden at his apartment on St. Mark’s Place. Wilson called it the worst rats’ nest he’d ever seen (now a Mexican restaurant, if the building maintains this distinction Auden is no longer to blame). When Auden left the apartment in 1972, the Salvation Army refused to take his furniture. The sofa was propped up on bricks on one end, and there was a huge burn mark on one of the cushions, wreathed by a water stain. When Wilson asked about it, Auden explained that he had lit the sofa on fire with an errant cigarette and the only thing he had to pour on it was a pitcher of martinis. One hears the gravelly smoker’s chuckle in Auden’s voice. His humor was often self-deprecating (“My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain”) and campy (“Narcissus was a hydrocephalic idiot who thought ‘On me it looks good’”).

As Osborne writes, “Auden realized that he frequently play-acted even when consciously he was quite serious, well before his audience became aware of the fact; and this was bound up with his understanding that the arts are, to a very large extent, sheer play.” This quality of “masquerade” or “charade” (Isherwood’s words) imbued Auden’s poems with an impressive variety of tones, from the satiric to the lyrical and from the bombastic to the hyper-refined. J. D. McClatchy has noted that Auden’s range of subjects “relieve[d] him of the mystique of high seriousness.” As a poet, Auden worked against the deathly seriousness that mars the work of more earnest and emotive poets, favoring instead the playful energy derived from making, from organizing words into memorable formulations: “Poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good.”

In the end, the signature of Auden’s poems is his mastery of the phrase. Even when a poem disappoints, it has usually been touched by his linguistic genius. But the kind of virtuosity that Auden displayed was frequently lost behind the veils of thought that he picked up then shed like a manic Salome. For Auden, the aesthetic exigencies of the poem came first; the intellectual systems that he poached on for his poems were true only in so far as they helped him to realize the verse. He therefore tired quickly of such ideas. In poetry, Auden once said, “all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.”

Skeptical readers may be forgiven, then, for doubting Auden’s sincerity, even at his most serious. The difficulty of where to draw the line—does his seriousness begin here, or here?—becomes particularly acute when considering Auden’s lifelong and wildly varied relationship with his Anglo-Catholic faith. This relationship is now the subject of a quite serious and respectful book by Arthur Kirsch,[1] whose other books include a careful reconstruction from classroom notes of Auden’s lectures on Shakespeare and a recent edition of The Sea and the Mirror.[2]

Auden and Christianity has provoked at least one dubious response regarding the nature of Auden’s religious beliefs. As quoted in the magazine First Things in January, Paul Dean, a formidable scholar and a frequent contributor to these pages, is having none of it. “Brought up in the High Church (which also means High Camp) tradition,” Dean argues, “Auden was fond of ritual and ceremony; for him religion was a branch of aesthetics rather than the other way around.” Dean’s belief that Auden was not a particularly devout Christian is shared by Osborne, who concedes the intensity of Auden’s boyhood beliefs but questions his later commitment to the Church: “Auden’s ‘hiatus of unbelief’ was to last a good eighteen years, and whether he ever came back to the intense belief in Christianity of his childhood years may well be doubted.”

Auden’s childhood beliefs are generally agreed to have been both heartfelt and formative. At the age of six, he served as a boat boy in the Anglican Church. For those who don’t take their church that High, the boat boy is the acolyte who carries the incense, accompanying the thurifer, who wields the incense-burning censer, alongside other acolytes such as the crucifer and the bell ringer. The clergy was something of an Auden family vocation: Auden’s grandfathers were both Anglican priests, as were four of his uncles. Daily prayers were said in his boyhood home, at the behest of his deeply believing mother, who was disposed to High Church ritual and took her children regularly to services.

Auden was by no means, however, a lifelong believer. What he called his early “period of ecclesiastical enthusiasm,” following his confirmation in the Church in 1920, soon gave way to a suspicion that religion was “nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda water.” He began to feel that his fondness for what he saw as “the exciting magical rites” of the Church were really just a cover for a “quite straightforward and unredeemed eroticism.” The “magic” of the church service was replaced in Auden’s young adulthood by homosexual sex, which, as Auden argued in an essay on J. R. Ackerley, constitutes a rite of symbolic magic all its own. Auden openly criticized the Church at times and defended it at others. At Oxford, Auden would adopt the parodic persona of a demented clergyman delivering a sermon, and apparently he was quite convincing. (Ursula Niebuhr remembers him at one point dressing up like a bishop, clearly a bump up the hierarchy.)

By the 1930s, Auden’s worldview, as it took shape in his poems, was colored by ideas cobbled together from D. H. Lawrence, or from Freud and Marx, but such ideas were not ones to which, as Carpenter points out, he deeply subscribed: Auden spoke of a “conversion” to communism, but, unlike Stephen Spender and C. Day-Lewis, he made no attempt to join the Communist Party. Auden’s two ostensibly communist poems—both from 1932 and both later excluded from the collected poems, “Brothers, who when the sirens roar” (also known as “A Communist to others”) and “I have a handsome profile”—were, according to Spender, examples of Auden shamming beliefs he did not hold. Isherwood saw Auden’s halfhearted communism as a way of humoring his friends. Interestingly, while Auden’s religion continued to color his outlook in various ways during this period, he did not miss the opportunity in “I have a handsome profile” to take a whack at the Church:

I’ll attend when the parson is preaching
I’ll tell all my sins to the priest
I’ll do exactly as they ask
I’ll go to heaven at least
After this world has had its day.

You may sit down under the pulpit
You may go down on your knees
But you don’t believe them any more
And they won’t give you any ease
They’re of this world that has had its day.

“I wondered then why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value. The answer brought me back to the church.”

The reawakening in the late Thirties of Auden’s religious beliefs culminated in his return to the Anglican Communion in 1940. As Arthur Kirsch points out, there were several reasons that led Auden to reaffirm his faith. First was the horror of the Nazis who, Auden said, “made no pretence of believing in justice and liberty for all, and attacked Christianity on the grounds that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings.” In 1939, Auden attended a screening of a film documenting the Nazi’s conquest of Poland at which he observed that “quite ordinary, supposedly harmless Germans in the audience were shouting ‘Kill the Poles.’” “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’s elucidation of the profound change that took place in Auden and in his thinking is compelling:

It seemed utterly clear to [Auden] that liberalism had a fatal flaw in it.

“The whole trend of liberal thought,” he wrote during 1940, “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 it convenient.’” He was now certain that he must renew that “faith in the absolute” which appeared to him to be the only possible ground for moral judgement.

Auden felt that the absence of a moral absolute had opened the door to the Nazis: “Either we serve the Unconditional/ Or some Hitlerian monster will supply/ An iron convention to do evil by.”

A second spur for Auden was his experience during the Spanish Civil War, where he witnessed the destruction of churches and the persecution and murder of the clergy. As Carpenter writes, “In all, several thousand clergy members of religious orders fell victim to Republican persecutors, and this was only a fraction of the total number of people murdered on the Republican side.” Auden was deeply disillusioned by what he found in Spain. He later said that he “could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me.”

Indeed, churchgoing again became very important to him. At one point, when Auden was living on Middagh Street in Brooklyn, Golo Mann notes, “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.”

For Auden, Christianity provided the intellectual undergirding he had sought unsuccessfully in Freud and Marx. “There is a Faith,” he wrote,

by which a man lives his life as a man, i.e. the presuppositions he holds in order that 1. he may make sense of his past and present experience; 2. he may be able to act toward the future with a sense that his actions will be meaningful and effective; 3. that he and his world may be able to be changed from what they were to something more satisfactory.

As someone who returned to his faith after a long lapse, Auden believed that the important thing (echoing G. C. Lichtenberg’s aphorism) was not to “believe still” but to “believe again”—in other words, after wrestling with one’s faith as Auden had. Auden was decidedly Augustinian in his approach; as someone who was both drawn to and conflicted about his homosexuality, Auden sympathized with Augustine’s celebrated remark from the Confessions, “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.”

The emergence of theological and specifically Christian subject matter in Auden’s poetry at this time was not to everyone’s taste. Auden once scolded so-called “cultured people” for their “prudery,” those “to whom . . . theological terms were far more shocking than any of the four-letter words” and “whose childish memories associate religion with vague pious verbiage.” Something like these childish memories, though with a decidedly more sinister cast, seems to have led the poet and critic Randall Jarrell to his cranky appraisal of Auden’s religious awakening. Jarrell begins by underscoring Auden’s general lack of seriousness:

The later Auden is rarely serious: he is either solemn or ingeniously frivolous, like some massive and labyrinthine town-clock from which the corked Topsy and a gilt Eva somersault to mark the hours of Time, but from which Uncle Tom himself, rattling the keys and surrounded by the flames of Judgement, emerges to herald the advent of Eternity.

Ingeniously frivolous, indeed! Jarrell then writes of Auden’s beliefs that

Auden first slipped into this dark realm of Faerie (this “horrible nightmare” of Calvinism [. . .]) on the furtive excursions of the unbeliever who needs some fake photographs of the Little People for a new edition of Peter Pan, but who ends up as a cook’s boy helping the gloomier dwarfs boil toads and snails, in preparation for the love-feast that celebrates the consummation of their mysteries.

Jarrell himself seems to have strayed into Neverland here. “[Auden’s] morals,” he continues with greater clarity, “are now, like the Law in Luther or Niebuhr, merely a crutch with which to beat us into submission, to force home to us the realization that there is none good but God, that no works can either save us or make us worth saving.”

He understood that no poem had saved a single Jew from death at the hands of the Nazis. Still, he believed in the necessity of action.

At least two points are worth countering here: one, that Auden wishes to beat the reader into submission, and, two, that no works can either save us or make us worth saving, which suggests that Auden therefore has no belief in action. It is true that Auden wrote “poetry makes nothing happen.” He understood that no poem had saved a single Jew from death at the hands of the Nazis. Still, he believed in the necessity of action. “Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do,” he tells us, “but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational moral choice.”

This strikes me as both serious and right. To his credit, while he doubted poetry’s ability to foment action, he himself did not fall down on works. Just as one example among many, one of Auden’s fellow parishioners at St. Mark’s in the Bowery tells the story, recounted by Edward Mendelson, that she was, at one point, afflicted with irrational terrors at night, and so, for a few nights until the episode passed, Auden placed a blanket in the hallway outside her door and slept on it in order to reassure her.

The moral compass of Christianity provided Auden with something more than a mere interesting poetic possibility; his Christian beliefs were in fact “true” for Auden, though he retained a deep-seated modesty about them. As Auden observed in a sermon delivered at Westminster Abbey, where he is now honored in Poets’ Corner, “Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals.”

Despite the explicitly Christian subject matter of many of his poems, Auden said that “art was secular, and was not really a fit vehicle for Christian belief.” At Columbia University in 1940, he explained that art was not metaphysics and that

the artist is usually unwise to insist too directly in his art upon his beliefs; but without an adequate and conscious metaphysics in the background, art’s imitation of life inevitably becomes, either a photostatic copy of accidental details of life without pattern or significance, or a personal allegory of the artist’s individual dementia, of interest primarily to the psychologist and the historian.

Auden’s poems that incorporate Christian themes and subjects—such as his Christmas oratorio “For the Time Being,” The Sea and the Mirror, “Horae Canonicae,” and “New Year Letter”—treat religion and prayer in various ways and with varying degrees of success. To my mind, it is more in Auden’s poems that extend “our knowledge of good and evil” that Auden’s faith resonates most affectingly. The greatest of these is “The Shield of Achilles.”

Frequently touted as an anti-war polemic (as it was by Katha Pollitt at The New Yorker festival’s recent celebration of Auden), the poem is something larger than that. Auden, by his own admission, was not strictly a pacifist: “Certainly my position forbids me to act as a combatant in any war. But if by pacifism you mean simply the refusal to bear arms, I have very little use for it. . .  . To think that it is enough to refuse to be a soldier and that one can behave as one chooses as a private citizen, is to be quite willing to cause a war but only unwilling to suffer the consequences.”

“The Shield of Achilles” couples the loss of religious ritual with a tolerance for sanctioned torture, bemoaning the horrors of a world where violence has become axiomatic and empathy has been abolished. Recalling Auden’s comments on the Nazis, it is a poem that believes in “justice and liberty” and defends Christianity on the grounds that to love one’s neighbor as oneself is a command fit not “for effeminate weaklings” but for those most concerned with man’s salvation.

The poem envisions Homer’s shield not as a depiction of all of civilization but as a window onto inhumanity and death. At the beginning of the poem, Achilles’ mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, looks on at Hephaestus’s creation, the shield he has made for her son:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

The setting eventually shifts to a contemporary scene of three prisoners being bound (note the Christian symbol) to “three posts driven upright in the ground”:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

Auden failed a number of times in his attempt to achieve the public voice. “September 1, 1939,” with its famous line “We must love one another or die,” was later dismissed by him as “the most dishonest poem I’ve ever written”; likewise “Spain 1937” struck him in retrospect as false. “The Shield of Achilles” succeeds where those poems failed, in its consideration of public moral issues. Auden’s cautionary tale concludes with a vision of a world with no balm:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

So it seems that Auden had a serious side after all—not surprising, given how many sides there were to the man. As a mirror of his multifaceted nature, consider Auden’s annual birthday party at his Saint Mark’s apartment. On one side of the room clustered the “opera-literary-homosexual” friends (Carpenter’s phrase) and on the other his theological and academic friends, with Auden shuttling back and forth between them. Both groups represent a side of Auden that is present in the poetry as well in the life. A tricky contradiction to resolve, but, in his idiosyncratic way, Auden did, if not resolve them entirely, at least include them both at the party.

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  1. Auden and Christianity, by Arthur Kirsch; Yale University Press, 207 pages, $30.
  2. The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest, by W. H. Auden, edited and with an introduction by Arthur Kirsch; Princeton University Press, 106 pages, $17.95 paper. 
  3. Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden, edited by Stephen Burt, with Hannah Brooks-Motl, with a forward by Adam Gopnik; Columbia University Press, 179 pages, $34.50. 

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 7, on page 9
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