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  1. Auden and Christianity
  2. The Christian reticence of W H Auden

Kirsch supposes. His return to practicing Christianity in was strictly on his own terms. Kirsch records his objections to the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth basically, that they deprived poor Mary of a sex life and his unease about the historicity of the Resurrection.

He saw the Crucifixion as, in Mr. Kirsch's words, "a reenactment of the Fall by post-lapsarian men and women," a tragic vision which undercut its redemptive nature. The major question for readers of Auden is not his orthodoxy or the degree to which his private life vindicated his beliefs, but whether the poetry he wrote as a result of holding them is any good.

Auden himself did not take this view; for him it was more important that a poet should write what he believed than what he thought worked artistically. Kirsch, assuming Auden's greatness as a poet, comments only lightly on the poems he quotes and never explains in detail just what it is that Auden did with words that seems to him so admirable.

It is a critical cliche to say that Auden wrote better poetry before he went to America in Kirsch thinks this judgment stems from anti-religious prejudice since "the American Auden is emphatically a Christian Auden. O Unicorn among the cedars, To whom no magic charm can lead us. The slackness and vagueness are embarrassing, as is the sub-Eliot musing of the sequence "Horae Canonicae":.

22. W. H. Auden

And I know that I am, here, not alone But with a world and rejoice Unvexed, for the will has still to claim This adjacent arm as my own. To write in this way is to show an incapacity to grasp thoughts concretely enough to render them in terms of imaginative power or rhythmic energy. The reader's quarrel is not with Auden's beliefs, which indeed remain nebulous, but with the inertia of the style.

Kirsch's most valuable chapter is on Auden's criticism. Here, when he had something external to himself to react to, he was acute, even profound. His discussions of the sadness of the Homeric world, in which emotions are forever felt immediately but do not constitute a pattern of character development, of the superiority of marriage to mere romance as a literary subject, of the "worldliness" in "Antony and Cleopatra," of the challenge thrown down to the Venetian world not by Shy lock's race but by his unswerving seriousness, of Captain Ahab as a negative Don Quixote, are all things to be grateful for.

Auden and Christianity

His callous treatment of his recruits is misunderstood by Auden; he seems to think Falstaff's description of them as "food for powder" is ironic and that he really valued them Mr. Kirsch speaks of the "peculiar penetration" of the remark. I can see no warrant for this in the text - Falstaff admits that he has "led them where they are peppered" - and agree with William Empson that Auden's religion warped his view here. This point has a wider relevance.

I suspect that Auden's compulsive idealism about childhood stemmed from his guilt about his homosexuality an unfashionable feeling nowadays , and that this, coupled with his quixotic commitment to the reprehensible Kallman, made him see not only his adult self but adulthood in general as tainted. The body of a pubertal boy, he wrote, will be "Hostile to his quest for truth" because the sexual impulse is independent of the "world of right and wrong" - a telling comment if ever there was one!

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My own religious journey goes back half a century or more. I was lucky, as young man, to come into contact with W. Auden, who helped me immensely at a critical juncture. This was in , when I was living in Britain, a graduate student doing some research at Oxford. In effect, he had returned from decades in New York to England in order to die at home, in familiar surroundings. His old college gave him a tiny cottage in one of their gardens, and a permanent place at high table.

He was revered by students and faculty alike for his delectable wit and kindness.

The Christian reticence of W H Auden

I had met him a couple of times, and shared in this admiration. One day I went up to London for a meeting, and was walking down a busy street in the afternoon when I became overwhelmed by the crowd. I felt horribly dizzy, weak-kneed, and had to sit down in a quiet doorway on a side street.

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I felt my heart racing, my head spinning, my palms sweating: I thought I was surely about to die. I made my way slowly to Paddington Station and returned to Oxford by train that evening, sure that my life was over, that I had experienced a heart attack or something equally severe. I happened to run into Auden on the street. You look unwell. You need a good drink.

I went back to his cottage, which was an ashtray with a few chairs, piles of books and old newspapers on the floor, and a lumpy couch where he directed me to sit. He handed me a monumentally stiff drink — vodka from the freezer in what looked like a porcelain bowl -- and listened to an account of my anxiety-producing experience that afternoon in London. But listen, dear boy. I know only two things. Two pieces of wisdom. And I will give you these, and you will go away and think about them for many years.

Decades, indeed.


Is that OK? I nodded, sipping the vodka, and felt comforted by his attentions. You must realize there is no such thing as time. And it does a great deal of damage, as we adjust our lives to live by this falseness, tick-tock, tick-tock, this nonsense. This is faith, this is trust. I think the proper translation of the Greek word is rest.

Rest in God. He asked me to repeat these two pieces of wisdom and I did.

Now drink your drink, and dwell on these matters. I have practiced it pretty much from that night forward. In doing so, I draw on any number of poets and intellectuals from the past century. In the U. The literalism of their faith — they commonly regard the Bible as the unassailable and possibly inerrant Word of God — misses the point altogether, as both the Jewish and Christian scriptures are, in my view, mythic literature of a high order, full of propositions about life that must be taken seriously but not literally.

As St.