View Full Version : W. H. Auden

Ron Price
04-10-2013, 11:06 PM
I did not see W. H. Auden on this list, so I'll post the following to give him his necessary presence here. For readers who like short and pithy posts, I encourage you to skim or scan, or just stop reading here. There may be a few Auden lovers, of course, who may want to read to the end of what is now a long thread which I post from my home in Tasmania. The year 2013 is the 40th anniversary of Auden's passing.-Ron Price, Australia

Section 1:

W.H. Auden(1907–1973) was an English poet, playwright, and essayist who lived and worked in the United States for much of the second half of his life. His work represents one of the major achievements of twentieth-century literature. “Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbour as oneself.”1

T.S. Eliot thought of religion as “the still point in the turning world,” “the heart of light,” “the crowned knot of fire,” “the door we never opened”—something that remained inaccessible, perfect, and eternal, whether or not he or anyone else cared about it, something absolutely unlike the sordid transience of human life.

Section 2:

W.H. Auden thought of religion as derived from the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”—an obligation to other human beings despite all their imperfections and his own, and an obligation to the inescapable reality of this world, not a visionary, inaccessible world that might or might not exist somewhere else.

Auden’s Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought. It was also the aspect of his life and work that seems to have been the least understood by his readers and friends, partly because he sometimes talked about it in suspiciously frivolous terms, partly because he used Christian vocabulary in ways that, a few centuries earlier, might have attracted the Inquisitor’s attention.1-Ron Price with thanks to 1Edward Mendelson, “Auden and God,” 6/12/’07, a review of Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch in The New York Review of Books, 21/3/’13.

Section 3:

In October 1967 just as I was
settling into my second month
teaching grade 3 Inuit kids on
Baffin Island….W. H. Auden
gave the T. S. Eliot Lectures at
University of Kent in the UK.

Auden took-up some of Eliot’s
themes, martyrdom, & relations
between poetry, belief, words, &
the Word:

Any heaven we think it decent to enter
Must be Ptolomaic with ourselves at the centre.1

Auden sought what he eventually
found: single style that was more
than capable of answering literary
need, and I did, too… as the years
passed into this new 21st century!!2

1 Auden quoted by Denis Donoghue in “Worldling”, The New York Review of Books. 19/6/’69.
2 Auden found a religious base to his poetic, as did I. I, too, was an Anglican, but only in the late 1950s, before I joined the Baha’i Faith from which I derived many of my moral and aesthetic ideas within Baha’i doctrines developed over two centuries.

Ron Price

Part 1:

The famous poet T.S. Eliot(1888-1965) thought of religion as “the still point in the turning world,” “the heart of light,” “the crowned knot of fire,” “the door we never opened”—something that remained inaccessible, perfect, and eternal, whether or not he or anyone else cared about it, something absolutely unlike the sordid transience of human life. From my perspective Eliot’s view of religion was its essential mystical quality, dealing as it does with the Unknown Reality which the wisdom of the wise and the learning of the learned will never comprehend. Such a view is at the centre of my belief system as a Baha’i.

The poet W.H. Auden(1907-1973) thought of religion as derived from the commandment: “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”—an obligation to other human beings despite all their imperfections and in spite of his own. It was an obligation that takes place in the inescapable reality of this world, not in a visionary, an inaccessible world that might or might not exist somewhere else. Auden’s view also reflects my Baha’i ethical and moral beliefs at the core of the Abrahamic religions.

Part 2:

The religious and philosophical views of poets inevitably shape their poetry. Auden’s Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was, for most of his life, the central focus of his art and thought. This is, without question, true of the shaping of my poetry by the Baha’i Faith. This aspect of Auden’s life and work seems to have been the least understood by his readers and friends, partly because he sometimes talked about it in suspiciously frivolous terms, and partly because he used Christian vocabulary in ways that, a few centuries earlier, might have attracted the Inquisitor’s attention---according to Edward Mendelson,(1) a professor of English and Comparative Literature and the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. I hope that readers do not have trouble understanding my Baha’i beliefs as expressed in my poetry. I try to go out of my way to be clear and overt, explicit and serious.

Auden’s version of Christianity was more or less incomprehensible to anyone who thought religion was about formal institutions, supernatural beliefs, ancestral identities, moral prohibitions, doctrinal orthodoxies, sectarian arguments, religious emotions, spiritual aspirations, scriptural authority, or any other conventional aspect of personal or organized religion. Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbour as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment.

Part 3:

He made it clear that he understood perfectly well that any belief he might have in the personal God of the monotheist religions was a product of the anthropomorphic language in which human beings think. –Ron Price with thanks to (1) Edward Mendelson, “Auden and God,” a review of Arthur Kirsch’s Auden and Christianity in The New York Review of Books, 6/12/’07.

We come close, here, W.H.,
you and I, but in this era of
1000 Christianities and the
troublesome historicity that
makes belief in Abrahamic
religions and all those smelly
little orthodoxies difficult, &
as George Orwell said were
contending for our souls,1….

I must side with Henry Miller,2
and his company of romantics
with their vitalistic & visionary
intensities seeing as they did
through their own eyes & not
through the eyes of others and
portraying our culture, and its
consumerist quagmire with its
soporific effect on men’s souls.3

1 George Orwell in The Phoenix and the Ashes, Geoffrey Nash, George Ronald, 1984, p.40.
2 American novelist and painter Henry Miller(1891-1980) held the view that the Baha’i Faith would “outlast all the other religious organizations in North America,” op. cit., p.56.
3 ibid.,p.55.

Ron Price

Part A:

W.H. Auden(1907-1973), one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, published his Letters from Iceland and a book of poems entitled On this Island in 1937. This was an historic year for the community I have come to be associated with for the last 60 years: the Baha’i Faith. As the Baha’is of North America were planning their first international teaching Plan in 1936/7, Auden also published a play The Ascent of F6. My parents were about to meet in the late 1930s and the world was on the edge of a crisis in which it had been enmeshed since 1914 and from which it has yet to recover. In the 70 years from 1937 to 2007 Letters From Iceland went through 20 editions and the Baha’i Faith grew from an international community of, perhaps, 100,000 members to one of, perhaps, 7 million.-Ron Price with thanks to “Letters from Iceland,” Wikipedia, 31 March 2011.

You died just as I was finding
some pleasure in my vocation
and I really only got ‘into’ you
when I found much pleasure
from my avocation.1 You always
said that a writer was a maker &
not a man of action; well, W.H.,
after 40 years of action, of being
jobbed, I was happy to be a maker.

You also said that a writer’s private
life should be of no concern to anyone
but his family and friends. I like that,
but on the internet and in our society
this is very difficult to achieve and the
issue is really quite complex, too complex
to deal with in a short poem like this. You
left a great deal of autobiographical words2
and me too W.H., me too. And, finally, W.H.,
thanks for The Dyer’s Hand published in ‘623
just as I began my travelling-pioneering for
the Canadian Baha’i community

Part B:

1 1973-my first year of enjoyment as a high school teacher. From 1999 to 2011 I learned much more about Auden than the little I had already known in my role as a teacher of literature. These were the first dozen years of my retirement from FT work during which I found pleasure in writing. An avocation is an activity taken up in addition to one’s regular work or profession, and taken up for enjoyment.
2 Humphrey Carpenter, “Preface,” Auden and Biography, George Allen and Unwin, 1981. Readers interested in Auden can now read the Auden Studies Series and go to the internet hyperlink: http://audensociety.org/criticism.html for a list of relevant reading.
3 In Auden's brilliant collection of essays, "The Dyer's Hand" (1962) he makes the fascinating(at least to some) point that:

"The critical judgment "This book is good or bad" implies good or bad at all times, but in relation to the readers future a book is good now if it's future effect is good, and, since the future is unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide therefore is the naive uncritical principle of personal liking. A person at least knows one thing about his future, that however different it may be from his present, it will be his. However he may have changed he will still be himself, not somebody else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of becoming useful to him later."

Ron Price
31 March 2011

Since the underlying reason for writing is to bridge the gulf between one person and another, as the sense of loneliness increases, more and more books are written by more and more people with little or no talent.-W.H. Auden in: An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents, ed. Naomi Mitchison, 1932.

Well, there’s some truth there Mr A,
but there is much vanity in this calling
so intercede for me as others did for you,
to help us deal with the trahison des clercs*,
the sadnesses and bitternesses
that cloud our lives so easily,
so insinuatingly, so subtlely,
making what is written in a better state
than those who write.

In some ways, Mr A, as you say,
we never are alone.
Writing is not so much a bridge
as a dictionary of definitions
of who we are,
what’s going on in front of us,
behind us, over us, below us
as we try to make our way,
in our enchanted and not-so-enchanted
habitats, with and without integrity:
that stirling coin that cannot always
be freshly minted to meet the occasion.

Ron Price
2 July 1995

* A betrayal of a cause or of literary/intellectual/social standards by intellectuals
JOHN ASHBERY: A Perspective on Auden

The famous American poet John Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956) won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. I was only 12 years old at the time. The competition for the prize was judged by the even more famous poet, W.H. Auden. Auden famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript. Ashbery's poems, according to Fred Moramarco in the Journal of Modern Literature, are a verbal canvas upon which Ashbery freely applies the techniques of expressionism. Ashbery’s strongest supporters admit that his poetry is very difficult to read and understand.

Many critics have commented on the manner in which Ashbery's fluid style conveys a major concern in his poetry: the refusal to impose an arbitrary order on a world of flux and chaos. Ashbery says: “my poetry is disjunct, but then so is life." His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next. This lack of any continuity prompts some critics to praise his expressionist technique and other critics to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible and meaningless.

When I started out as a traveller-pioneer in the Canadian Baha’i community in 1962, and began my matriculation in grade 13 in Ontario, Ashbery published his The Tennis Court Oath which some of those critics deplored as obscurantist and insisted that this poem, like his previous poetry, was made up of anything and everything. It could mean anything and everything.-Ron Price with thanks to “The Tennis Court Oath,” The Poetry Foundation, 3 October 2010.

When I started to get into poetry, John,
in ’62 I knew nothing about you, unlike
Peter Straub1 who very consciously was
revolutionized in the way and the how he
saw poetry from what he had been taught
to read and think about it. But it took me
thirty more years before I could give my
mind and heart to this thing called poetry.

And, by that time, John, I was wanting to
make connections as I headed into middle
of middle age…One could not connect all
things, that would be impossible except in
some broad philosophical sense, but I was
not into obscurantist double-talk. Mine was
a new explanatory narrative about anything
and everything…..Like you, John, I write for
myself because I enjoy it. Like you, if a work
needs a lot of reworking, I don’t even start it.2

2 The San Francisco Review of Books, November 1977, in Joe David Bellamy, Ed. American Poetry Observed: Poets On Their Work, U Illinois Press, Urbana, 1984.

1 Peter Straub, “The Oath Unbroken: The Tennis Court Oath(1962),” From Connections, 49, Fall, 2007.

Ron Price
3 October 2010

Australian poets Clive James and Peter Porter discussed the poetry of the 1920s and 1930s for half an hour this afternoon. Our poetry today, they argue, goes back to the twenties and the arcane, obscure but masterful, refined poetry of Eliot and Pound, far above the ordinary person and the simpler lyrics of the thirties. They talked about a search in those inter-war years for an oracular authority, for total lyric authority. Some found it in Paris; some found it in Berlin; some found it in Auden or W.B.Yeats.

I think it is more than coincidental that the development of the organizational framework of Baha'i Administration goes back to these same years between the wars, to Shoghi Effendi in Haifa and his spiritual, his insitutional exegisis, his oracular authority. -Ron Price with thanks to Clive James and Peter Porter on "Sunday Special," ABC Radio National, 5:30-6:00 pm, 25 November 2001.

We all go back to those years,
those haitus years
while we waited for that Plan
to finally be put into action,
while he developed that form,
that framework, that shape
which we have been using
with refinements,
with infinitely more detail,
year after year, decade after decade.

As the treasures of a hidden wisdom
were slowly revealed, their contents
far too much for our generation, for
our years, this newest of Abrahamic
religions insensibly covered the face
of the Earth-little by little-day by day.

Ron Price
25/11/'01 to 11/4/'13

“A writer is a maker,” wrote W.H. Auden, “not a man of action.”1 I can accept this as partly true since my life now as a writer in these years of my retirement is solitary, with much less of the gregariousness that was at the centre of my life for half a century, the years when I was that man of action in the field of everyday life as a student, a teacher and one of dozens of other roles and jobs I had since 1950. At the same time, I feel as if I am now wedding the powers of poet and writer as well as man of action.

As I come to recognize more and more the subtle relationships between the fragments of my life, my own life becomes my poetry. I become the symbol of a union I am forever striving to recreate as well as the symbol of my separation and its precarious gestures of art and argument. There results a fusion, well partly anyway, between myself as seer and perceiver and the wonder and meaning I envisage. My words come to symbolize the harmony between vision and form that is such a vital part of the Cause I have embraced for decades.2 My words also illustrate so clearly the tragic consequences that result when the link, the vital bond, between writer and reader is broken. -Ron Price with thanks to 1W.H. Auden in Auden and Biography, Humphrey Carpenter, George, Allen and Unwin, London, 1981, p.xv; and 2 Bahiyyih Nakhjvani, “Artist, Seeker and Seer,” Baha’i Studies, Volume 10, 1982, p. 16.

In the whirlwind of this distracted hour
my fragmented, scattered and tossed
thoughts and perceptions perchance
cast myriad dancing lights up against
glancing rays of this new Revelation,
throw reflections that might show
lineaments of Its grace and beauty
and like prisms separate the brilliance
of this gleaming unbroken blaze where
in a crystal It maketh fire to appear.

Perchance, too, I may be carried to
the very heart of contentment and be
drawn ever nearer to reading secrets
of reality, the riddle of the Essence,
with piercing sight gaze upon a new
creation and with lucid heart grasp
oh so very subtle inward verities,
transmuting the quotidian into sacred
and resplendent tokens and fruits of
communion in green resplendent gardens.

Ron Price
16 November 2008

Section 1:

The main problem I have with the question of freedom and authority in our society is where to begin. I like the Plato and Aristotle dichotomy and the history of the fifth century BC, a milieux where your question of freedom and authority, conscience and doing what you think is right as opposed to the rule of law, tradition and religion was first dealt with by philosophers. I like Weber’s three forms of authority: charismatic, traditional and rational-legal. Each of these beginning points can provide me with a framework to discuss your question. Then there is the W.B. Yeats’ phrase that “the centre has not held;” or, with T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, the rupture and the seeking of substitutes for the traditional centre, and one could begin there to discuss questions and issues in relation to freedom and authority.

All humans find themselves in the world and its predicaments. Traditional authorities have fractured so extensively in the last 150 years, to chose what is for me a convenient time-frame, that: (1) the truth of one’s experience—becomes a radical individualism and/or a nihilism in culture; (2) there has resulted a crossover from religion to the expressive arts for millions to deal with restraints on impulse with the result that there are now for millions: (a) no boundaries, no sacred grooves/groves and (b) no moral norms; and finally: (3) how to deal with the tension between release and restraint with the authority of religion delimited in the public sphere and political authority replacing it is no easy subject for millions.

Section 2:

The result of the general frameworks and broad brush strokes of the above paragraphs, frameworks and brush-strokes which require shade and nuance and detail are, for convenience, five in number:

1. rationalism-science
2. aestheticism
3. existentialism
4. civil religions and
5. political religions

I can not deal with all of these for it would take a book which one day I may write, but not yet—and the above 5 strands are far too complex to deal with here in any detail. Science has captured in its world the unity of nature. Our modern world of material benefits, progress in knowledge and the use of the rational faculty with rational proofs is the result of science. But science can not be the only gauge for evaluating an ethical norm; nor can the individual be the supreme judge of the norms of his life-style and the social order. There is need of a unity of ethical, metaphysical, meditative and mystical realms—in a word a unifying religion. Where will the limits on the unrestrained self come from? Modernism? Communism? Parliamentary democracy? Postmodernism?

Section 3:

New institutions that deal with old existential questions and woven into meanings over generations are slowly evolving. This is where the Baha’i Faith comes in. Living in community, in our global world, requires some rules. Pluralism must indeed have limits; mutual coercion mutually agreed upon, as one writer put it for our survival. Without rules people have the right to do anything and nothing. Limits must be placed on freedoms. Our society has a flood of laws due in part to a lack of social consensus....morality cannot be replaced by law-making or, as Lao Tse put it succinctly: the more laws, the more thieves and robbers.” Torn loose of metaphysical moorings values loose their characteristic of faith and they are no longer believed but, instead, are critically questioned and, in the end, negated. Morality is cut adrift and without any obligatory foundation.

Binding moral principles are essential to a humane world. To put this another way, attempts to base morality on worldly intelligence alone are built on illusions. We do not possess an innate sense of justice. A culture without a minimum of common values and not just a multiplicity of non-obligatory opinions can not last long. Axioms, norms and values stabilize a society. The Baha’i Faith offers a new source for these, a source that is perennial but not archaic, that provides a unified Weltanschauung. Anything which contradicts science is superstition and cannot be accepted in this new world of values. Superstition is out of the game.

The Bahá’í Faith combines the three main forms of authority that Max Weber describes: rational-legal, traditional and charismatic. The theocratic element—deriving from the charismatic authority of Bahá’u’lláh—and institutionalized in the Baha’i world Order—this theocratic element in the Baha’i Faith is subsumed in democratic institutions that are far different from the democratic institutions of the west. The Baha’i Faith provides an orienting structure to the question you raise. But I must end here. My story is too long; the future will slowly reveal the answers to these enigmatic questions.-Ron

"Life, as we experience it," wrote W.H. Auden, "is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives." The journey of life seems infinitely long and the possible and distant destinations far removed from each other, "but the time spent in actual travel is infinitesimally small." As Auden sees it, on this journey there are three or four "decisive instants" that carry us the whole way through life. I think there is some truth in this way of looking at our lives. The several decisions, several instants, in my life that have been crucial have been: becoming a Baha'i in 1959, pioneering among the Inuit in 1967, pioneering overseas in 1971, marrying my first wife in 1967 and my second in 1975. There are several other instants I could include here, but this core it could arguably be said has got me through the whole of life. -Ron Price with thanks to Richard Davenport-Hines, Auden, Minerva, London, 1995, p.1.

There are dozens, hundreds,
thousands, of lesser moments
of transportation along life's
road of blissful solitude, and
its occasional nightmares,
its ordinary ordinariness,
the giddy collective gallop,
amidst bleak-gray, radiant
light, moving as we all do
toward the black earth and
the hole for those who speak
no more, through an endless
introspection and our humble
attempts to sing praise in the
great prison of our earthly-day.(1)

(1) Auden, 1939.

Ron Price
9/10/'01 to 11/4/'13.

Laura Riding found that poetry alleviated her sense of not feeling at home anywhere. For her poetry was a way to unify and intensify experience, a way of thinking rather than just a way of writing. -Joyce Wexford, Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth, Ohio UP, Athens, 1979, p.15.

Do you have to go to America
to read American literature?
Do you have to go to France
to understand Flaubert? Well,
of course not. I do not know
how to write poems and yet
I write. When A new noise,
new idea, begins & blooms,
energy moves as if on the
wheels, the wings, of s dove,
and takes me into a corner
where I flail about and my
fingers move at varying
speeds and, when time
permits, I write all day,
having talked and talked
all my life with great gaps
of silence and years and
years of busyness, heat
and lots of rain-tempests.

Ron Price
16/2/'97 to 11/4/'13.

The poetic idea unites aspects of existence that ordinarily remain unconnected, and in this lies its value. The secret of genius is perhaps nothing else than this greater availability of all experience coupled with larger stores of experience to draw on.
-I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism, 1929.

Experience is never limited...it is an intense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb, of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. -Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Partial Portraits, 1888.

I think of experience as acting, not upon, but in and with the poet-I conceive the poet, not as having, but as being, his experience. -H.W. Garrod, Poetry and the Criticism of Life,1931.

Guessing the unseen from the seen,
tracing the implications of things,
judging wholes from patterns,
feeling the whole and sensing corners,
travelling underground to get at the mountain,
imagination supersaturated, dropping stuff
all over the place: vivid concentrations,
realer than real, intensified in the memory,
truth not yet achieved. Precision instrument
for storing impressions, instant and complete,
trusting imagination and memory and
showing the world reflected in broken glass
to sharpen it for the reader, if he can;
recreating a complex world: simply, deeply.

Ron Price
18 September 1995