Sunday, 8 June 2014

W H Auden: 1907-1973 Part 3

I've been trawling through the archives at the library again, and in particular for Sundays, "The Pilot" which was the monthly magazine for the Church of England in Jersey for many years. Every month, there would be pieces from the minister of each church, along with various other articles of interest.
In 1995, the Reverend Tony Keogh began a series of articles in "The Pilot" under the umbrella title "God and the Poets", and here is the part of his series on W.H. Auden. I thought it was a shame that it should be buried in the past, so I've transcribed it for my blog.

Other parts are at:
God and the Poets: W H Auden: 1907-1973 Part 3
By Tony Keogh

Auden had started writing poetry at school but it was at Christ Church, Oxford that he began to understand something of the English poetic tradition into which he was born. His early attempts were influenced by de la Mare, Hardy, Housman and many others besides. In his search for his own voice, he discovered T S Eliot in 1926 and for a while, he became. a slavish imitator, even believing that a poet should be depersonalised and look like a stockbroker. Youonly have to see photographs of Auden to know that that was impossible.
Of all the walks in Oxford, his favourite was the towpath which ran beside the gasworks, as it corresponded to Eliot's "dull canal round behind the gas house" in "The Waste Land." However, at this stage, he was devouring much of the works of contemporary poets, Emily Dickinson among many others, but he was no plageriser or cork in the waves; all were put to use in finding his own voice in his own poetry. As Christopher Isherwood wrote, "By learning to speak with the tongues of other poets, he was continually enlarging the range of his own strongly individual poetic language."
He was: inseparable from the Oxford English Dictionary and, later on, these volumes would be worn out with use and the fact that he was in the habit of sitting on them to eat his meals. There was a freshness and colloquialism in his poetry, but everyday monosyllables were combined with recondite words, often of classical derivation, though Auden had little Latin and less Greek. Such was the audacity of the man and his love of language, its meaning and sound, that after two or three months in Berlin, he began to write poems in German.
After leaving Oxford, he earned his living as a master in various preparatory schools, where he was well liked by both colleagues and boys. Stephen Spender thinks that this was probably the happiest period of his life.
He moved 'in the fashionable circles of young poets and men of letters, such as Spender, Isherwood and Day-Lewis. It is clear that he was courting socialism and even Marxism as a possible creed for himself. This was the time of the last days of the German Weimar Republic and the dark night of Nazism was about to descend. Observers clearly identified Auden and his group with the left in politics.
While at Oxford, Auden had driven a car for the TUC in the General Strike. In his autobiography, "The Thirties and After," Spender says of Auden that "in. his poetic journey from psychoanalytic symbolism (Eliot) to Christian theology, Marxist materialism was the most transitory of his ideological ports of call."
Auden was a ruthless self-editor, much criticised for it, and scarcely a trace of Marxism now remains in his work. The Spanish Civil War was the test case. These young men all supported the Republicans. Auden wrote a poem, "Spain," which expresses the Marxist view of history in a line such as "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder," a sentiment which freedom fighters, liberation theologians and post-modernists would applaud today. George Orwell castigated such opinions as of "the pink-pansy left," and as expected from those who had not experienced the barbarism of violence. Auden himself changed the line to "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder;" but he soon came to dislike the poem as a pose and suppressed it.
Going to Spain, he found to his astonishment that he could not abide the sight of gutted churches, burnt by the Communists: he was on his way back to Christianity. He had never been irreligious, the "maybeness" of God was always there. He lamented his lack of specific mystical experience, in contrast to Eliot, but we may question this, while admitting that his religious experience was essentially of intellectual conviction.
In his introduction to the anthology edited by Anne Freemantle, "The Protestant Mystics," he tells of an incident in his own life as early as 1933. On a fine summer's night, he was sitting on a lawn .after dinner with three colleagues, two women and a man. They had not drunk any alcohol. They liked each other but were not intimate and the conversation was casual, about mundane matters. Quite suddenly."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."
He was convinced - and later had proof in one case - that his companions were undergoing a similar experience; though the conversation continued as before. Nor was there a new intimacy between them, but "I felt their existence to be of infinite value and I rejoiced in. it."
He felt penitence for the many times he had been "spiteful, snobbish, selfish," but this was transcended by joy. The, feeling was still there the next morning; though weaker. Intense for two hours, .it did not vanish completely for two days or so; the memory of it was undoubtedly a factor in his return to the Christian faith, though when it happened, his abandonment of that faith was at its height.

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