Why pick WH Auden? Trigger. Alexander McCall Smith little book What can WH Auden do for you?
Quintessentially Anglican, in a manner which is timely, inclusive and challenging.
The lament that the C of E has lost its way is at times like a deafening chorus.
It is too prone to chase cultural fashion, it is not relevant, the liturgy is boring, the worship is too banal, it has abandoned its traditions, it is too evangelical- it is not evangelical enough etc.
We have all heard them and more.
I think that Auden can help, partly as a result of timing. By being born in 1907 and living until 1973, he had to respond to all the great issues thrown up by the first half of the century- from the rise of psychology to mass political movements – but was around long enough to dip his toe in the incoming tide of change and controversy, which is our inheritance- whether that is liturgical reform or more liberal attitudes to sexuality, or the prominence of materialism and consumerism.
He had experience of all and something insightful to say about them too.
And as testified to by his famously crevassed face he lived.
His was a life which was oddly on the edge at the same time as being cossetted, so we find his poetry connects – I will draw a bit on some of his other writings too- with a wide range of human experience.
Funeral Blues- became a celebrity poem thanks to 4 Weddings and a funeral- and was originally a satirical piece from a play, mocking public mourning for a political figure, then in typical Auden fashion was turned into a cabaret song, and yet still has lines which tell.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
And September 1939 became a kind of literary anchor to thousands of Americans in the wake of 9/11. As they sort words to describe such a horrendous interruption into everyday city life. The opening verse alone in that context is powerful enough to bring you to the verge of tears.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
This was one of his own
poems that Auden disliked most of all- it is my favourite.
These are examples of what is quite common now. Of taking poems and like popular songs and using them as a kind of sound-track to life. Words which are semi- detached, at least, from their context and original meaning.
Today I want to draw attention to the spiritual and theological under-currents which are present in many of his poems. Sometimes those currents are explicit, but many are concealed. This I think is one of the great joys of Auden. One of his greatest gifts to the church he made his home.
For this concealment was not a result of embarrassment, as some of our noisiest public atheists might assume, but because he didn’t see faith as an add on- like an extra compartment on a train- but something enmeshed within life as it is lived and experienced.
In what counts to us, what matters- where our hearts are.
When I started researching for this day I was surprised again and again by poems I would have assumed at first glance are in no way religious, but on being nudged in the right direction by those who know better, noticed things I had completely missed before.
Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:
That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.
Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.
You may have noticed from that line about north and south, east and west that Auden had his favourite lines, which he wasn’t ashamed to recycle.
But the surprise about that poem,’ A Summer Night’ written in 1933, is that it describes a defining moment for him in his spiritual pilgrimage. At one level it is a moving poem about good companionship under the stars with fellow staff at Downs school; where he was teaching at the time.
But as he later revealed its significance was much deeper for him.
For him it had a religious dimension to it. At a point indeed when he had assumed that he had left his Christian faith behind him with his childhood.
30 years after he wrote the poem he wrote an introduction to a book on Protestant Mysticism, and said this.
One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it- what it means to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
Auden described this explicitly as a vision of agape- of Christian love- and always saw it, despite all his flaws and failings as a defining experience, which beat at the centre of his life.
There are quotations from Auden’s poems, including this one, and the odd complete poem around the church and the halls for you to read in quiet contemplation, and they will be the ones I will consider most in my 2 subsequent reflections.
Talk 2. There is no getting way from God.
There is a strong tradition which appears inside faiths and outside them, of dividing the world into distinct territories. The Sacred and the Profane, the Religious and the Political, the Private and the Public, for example.
We can probably all think of situations in which such categories are helpful, but also of the problems and confusions they bring.
The favourite target of the satirist for example is the public figure who sets himself up as a man of firm moral principle, but acts badly and hypocritically in private. But try understanding the Protestant Reformation without noticing the tangle of social struggles nationalist politics and religious passions-public and interior- involved.
Auden was a very clever man, and a very complex one, so he noticed the great movements of history going on around him and brought those into his poetry, but also the personal dilemmas- the highs and lows- which marked his inner life, as they mark all of ours.
But his religious sensibility, as a put it earlier, was not like another compartment on a train, but a thread connecting all the mess of life; giving it another dimension.
One of his most famous poems is ‘ As I walked out one evening.’ Written in 1937 it begins
As I walked out one evening.
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
It seems to be a poem celebrating romantic love and then recognising its limits, but notice the last 3 verses. Their conclusion is interesting.
‘’O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’’
It was late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on.
Whatever was happening to him, and however parlous his private life became- often it was lived in squalor and in great loneliness- there was this attitude of blessing. What modern religious writers call a sense of gift. Auden strenuously avoided any sentimentality here by declaring in a talk given years later that you can’t refer to misfortune as a gift to someone else, but only as gift to yourself.
In describing his crooked heart, with which he attempts to love his neighbour he is referring to his homosexuality- he used the word crooked to describe his disposition in correspondence with his close friend Christopher Isherwood -which although he accepted he was never able to make peace with.
But above all to the general human condition; the imperfection and folly that lurks in all our attempts to love.
Towards the end of his life he turned to writing very honest autobiographical haikus. One went, very truthfully.
His thoughts pottered
From verses to sex to God
In the first talk I referred to September 1st, 1939 and how it spoke to people witnessing the horror of 9/11, but of course its original context was the outbreak of war. And it demonstrates how his deepening faith and return to active involvement in church were as tied up with the events in the political and public realm as much as with what was going on within himself. And it also shows how important the mind and the insights of the intellectual world were to him. Faith was never solely an emotional category for him, but a way of interpreting and responding to big events and big ideas. A prism, through which light is refracted.
So the poem draws on history, the then still novel science of psychology, the classical world, philosophy, political ideas and contemporary high culture- and yet never loses its immediacy and ability to speak plainly to that specific situation and to others, such as 9/11, to the plight of Syria, and even I would suggest our food bank reliant post crash society, here in London. What to do? Auden’s beginning of an answer is.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie, the romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man –in –the street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Moonlanding. One of my favourites but one fairly universally derided. Stale and avuncular was one of the criticisms I found levelled against much of his later poetry. Hardly the case with this one, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1969.
It shows how he always kept up with events even in old age. Still had an eye which saw through modernity’s habit of thinking that now is always best, and was still certain that the little things of life and a sense of wonder and blessing are vital and more everlasting than any technical triumph.
I am of an age that means the Moonlandings will forever hold a wonder, allowed aged 11 to watch it as I happened, but in retrospect Auden might have been right about the hype and the questionable motivation involved.
It could be dismissed as a cranky outburst by a jaundiced old man, but surely that is a voice which deserves a hearing.
It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only
because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.
A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment
the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.
Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.
Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers
about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.
Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several
with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.
Talk 3. With evening prayer.
Most of you have heard before how I was converted to the Book of Common Prayer. When I was ordained- 24 years ago- I went to a parish where all the services were in modern language apart from the 8am Eucharist and the sung evening service on Sunday which followed the 1662 prayer book. The Evening service had a large robed choir and hymns which went some way towards mitigating the out of date, antiquated language and, in my view, theology bordering on the barbaric- too much sin and self- abnegation for my taste.
There was a monthly Matins service too, which also used the old liturgy, where I was privileged to hear the great stage and screen actress, Wendy Hiller, read the lessons from time to time. I used to visit her too and we had a few quite energetic discussions about the relative merits of the old services versus the new ones. We were equally unpersuadable.
But over time and due to more frequent use of the old liturgies I understand far better why people hold to the old ways. There is far more to it than just being old fashioned, liking the familiar, and being averse to change.
Auden abhorred the liturgical changes which were just coming into the Church of England as he came towards the end of his life. By then he was dividing his time between his home in Austria and a cottage owned by Christ church college in Oxford- he moved there from New York to Oxford in 1972.
His health had been failing for a couple of years and attacks of vertigo and fainting had been attended to back in New York by a young neurologist and friend working on his first book- Awakenings- Oliver Sacks.
Auden’s opinion about liturgical reform was very firm.
He hated modern translations of the Bible- actually he only lived long enough to glimpse the tip of the ice-berg with all the subsequent translations- and he valued the language of the BCP to an extreme degree.
We had the extraordinary good fortune in that our Book of Common Prayer was composed at exactly the right historical moment. The English language had become more or less what it is today…
The ecclesiatics of the sixteenth century still possessed a feeling for the ritual and ceremoniousness which we have almost entirely lost. Why should we spit on our luck?
So it is appropriate that our evening service uses the words he loved so much. Even those of you who are not utterly familiar with the words will detect echoes of familiar phrases that have become embedded in the language. You might notice too a solemnity and weight to the language which is often elusive or absent in modern versions. It is much harder to let the mind skate over the surface with these words than it is with the more recent alternatives. If you are the sort of person who ever listens to the radio late at night you will have noticed the difference between the words which wash over you and the ones that draw you in by arresting your attention- there is a parallel.
After service read Thanksgiving. Written very shortly before his death. A summary of the evolution of his life and work and a kind of prayer. You in the final verse is capitalised. So it is not the poets and thinkers who are being thanked but God.
A Thanksgiving, by W. H. Auden
When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
people seemed rather profane.
Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
Hardy and Thomas and Frost.
Falling in love altered that,
now Someone, at least, was important:
Yeats was a help, so was Graves.
Then, without warning, the whole
Economy suddenly crumbled:
there, to instruct me, was Brecht.
Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.
Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.
Now, as I mellow in years
and home in a bountiful landscape,
Nature allures me again.
Who are the tutors I need?
Well, Horace, adroitest of makers,
beeking in Tivoli, and
Goethe, devoted to stones,
who guessed that — he never could prove
Newton led science astray.
Fondly I ponder You all:
without You I couldn’t have managed
even my weakest of lines.
? May 1973