Auden and Christianity

W.H. Auden’s currency as a popular poet returned briefly after September 11, 2001, when “September 1939” found its way into many commentaries on the events of that day (including Commonweal’s). In that poem, Auden, having recently emigrated from England to the United States, looked back at “the low dishonest decade” then coming to an end in Europe, and with foreboding summoned up the Fascist horror to come. New York City-specifically a dive on 52nd Street-was his setting, and in his poetic voice he expressed a mood that sixty-two years later echoed in many New Yorkers, “Beleaguered by the same/Negation and despair.” (To which Auden could offer only one hopeful admonition: “We must love one another or die.”)

Some may recall that Auden was classed among the radical, left-wing British poets of the 1930s. “McSpaundy” was the collective title applied to him, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and C. Day Lewis, known as socialist-virtually Communist-protesters against Depression-era economic woes and the rise of fascism. In his 1937 poem “Spain,” Auden even called for “necessary murder” in pursuit of social justice. Yet within a year of writing “September 1939” he had reaffirmed his Anglo-Catholic faith, and with a change in continents remade himself, or as Arthur Kirsch persuasively argues, asserted what he in truth had always been: a profoundly Christian poet.

A veteran scholar deeply familiar with Auden’s large canon, Kirsch gives us a book that is both literary and appreciative. He is a close and sensitive reader. Indeed, Auden and Christianity might be aptly subtitled “a reader’s guide,” for the study really requires that the poems themselves be read along with the analysis. A great deal of the book exists in quotation marks-generous servings of Auden’s verse, letters, lectures, and critical writings (the poet, by the way, served briefly in the 1940s as the pseudonymous “Didymus” columnist for Commonweal), and also excerpts from the theologians and philosophers who most influenced him, including Niebuhr, Barth, Tillich, Kierkegaard, and Buber. Another happy benefit of this study is Auden’s commentary on Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Melville. Great poets are often provocative critics, and this one was no exception. Few if any modern poets or librettists exceeded Auden’s deftness with rhyme and stanzaic structure. Perhaps the conventions of verse protected him from the confessional mode of Lowell and others; Kirsch suggests that Auden’s personal isolation (possibly brought on by his sexual orientation) made him seek community in liturgical worship, ritual, and ceremony, an impulse echoed in Auden’s obvious delight in, and command of, poetic form. Auden and Christianity is not a psychobiography, however, and attends only glancingly to such biographical facts as the poet’s homosexuality, the crisis with his partner Chester Kallman, or his notoriously unsanitary apartment in Greenwich Village. Kirsch offers a closing, summary view of Auden the man, but it is the poet’s theological and philosophical concerns-his rejection, with Augustine, of Manichaeism; his unease with eschatology; and his parallel insistence on the workings of belief in the “here and now”-that receive the author’s full attention.

Kirsch, having recently edited a critical edition of The Sea and the Mirror, Auden’s 1944 poetic commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, brings extensive research to the exposition of his subject’s belief. He gives us an Auden who lived his faith, a poet whose understanding of Christianity was the “integrating metaphysics” that lent coherence to his vision.

The most widely anthologized of Auden’s lyrics are those that he wrote in the 1930s, during his period of passionate allegiance to Freud, Marx, and socialism. And yet with Kirsch as guide, even poems such as “O What Is That Sound Which So Thrills the Ear?” and “As I Walked Out One Evening” reveal the profound influence of Christianity in their underlying beliefs about human nature and the human need for redemption through love. Kirsch also effectively counters those who have dismissed Auden after 1939 as a deserter of both his nation and his muse, and reveals both the depth and the pervasiveness of Christianity in the poet’s life and art following his emigration to America.

Auden and Christianity gives ample evidence of the subtlety and range of Auden’s thinking. Whether meditating on the role of art and the artist in the voices of Shakespeare, or grappling intensely with the mind/body dilemma (the poet distrusted the privileged status given to reason and rejected every form of dualism to adopt a thoroughly incarnationalist belief), Auden held sway over a rapacious intellect. Yet his poetry, his criticism, and by all accounts, his conversation, marked him as a believer. Auden’s belief, freighted as it was with the burdens (and doubts) of intellect, remained playful, even comic, and in the comedy salvific: in Kirsch’s summation, his poetry is “a reconciliation of agape and art.”

Though it bears none of the vocabulary of academic theory, Auden and Christianity is a serious book. Unabashedly analytical, Kirsch’s study nevertheless exudes a reassuring humility; and the clarity of interpretation, wealth of reference, and deep respect the author shows for Auden’s art are a form of witness in itself.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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