Thursday, April 21, 2011

Auden's God

A couple of weeks ago we attended the funeral of an aunt. We'd had tea with her maybe a month before, but didn't know she had an aortal aneurysm that could have killed her at any time. We loved her, wish we'd seen more of her, and miss her now.

The celebrant was an Episcopalian priest who didn't know her and didn't pretend to. He conducted a short, dignified, and to me a memorable ceremony. His voice was gently sonorous and his diction precise. He did not declaim but simply spoke, yet the effect, if in no way the act, was as a musical performance, like listening to a string quartet and being carried away by the complex and familiar sounds. I felt dreamy-contemplative, one part of me communally present and the other privately wandering. He spoke the words of the King James version of the Bible, so familiar to him that he did not so much read as render them from memory. And so familiar to me that the words did not convey their usual prosaic meanings but rather, as when hearing a difficult poem, they had a collective, emotional impact more than a commonplace intellectual one.

I listened more attentively when the priest quoted Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The letter says we are transformed when called into heaven. "All flesh is not the same flesh." As people, beasts, fishes, and birds all differ, "so also," the passage reads, "there is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars." When a person dies, he says, the "natural body" "is raised a spiritual body."[1]

Thinking about the "spiritual body" I recalled a homily once heard at Mass in which the priest said God is eternal, immaterial, without dimension and outside time. This description conforms to Spinoza's definition of a being that is infinite, necessary, uncaused, and indivisible.

W.H. Auden's concept of God was similar. He felt that God as father, lord, or other anthropomorphic descriptors was an artifact of language. We can't comfortably request blessings from Spinoza's God, can't envision such a being in our prayers, can't invoke what's basically indescribable in normal discourse. It followed for Auden, as Spinoza, that the immaterial God for which the anthropomorphized one stands isn't outside us but lies as much within as without. However, where Spinoza said all religion is superstition, Auden found a way to craft belief — and a commitment to religious observance — out of his faith. It mattered to him greatly that it was an act of this God to breathe into his Adam not just life, but consciousness, understanding of time's motions, and the ability to plan, make judgments, and cause things to happen.

Auden called this gift "making, knowing, and judging."[2] He believed that the way to God was through God's human creatures. Although Saint Matthew has Jesus say there are two fundamental commandments, Auden says they are one: "love thy God" (the first) is "like" (meaning identical with) "love thy neighbor" (the second).[3] Auden wrote "If it [i.e., an expression, a poem or other work of art] praises the Creator, it does so indirectly by praising His creatures..."[4] This gift which Auden's God gave humans was a terrible one; not terrible in the sense of wrongly done, but terrible in the sense of unimaginably frightening. This gift — the freedom of humankind to perceive themselves as separate beings, to make individual judgments, to create and to destroy — was once thought to have God-imposed limits, but events of the 20th century, particularly from the rise of Nazism onward, proved this belief to be a false one.

Auden considered this subject more than once, probably most memorably in a poem called Friday's Child.[5] The poem was a tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, for his efforts to assassinate Hitler. He was one of a very few religious leaders who not only opposed National Socialism but actively worked to subvert it.

In writing about Bonhoeffer Auden concealed in a kind of joke the depth of his feeling about what seems have been a cosmic injustice. Concerning the power that totalitarian states use in order to destroy the lives of millions the poem asks:
What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?
The poem says the God-given human mind (the "self-observed observing Mind") has little skill in using the freedom it possesses:
Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.
The poem ends with a sorrowful meditation on Good Friday.
Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.
Auden agreed with what Bonhoeffer said: "To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism.., but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world." The awful freedom which humans possess necessarily entails suffering. For Auden, the pain endured by God and humankind is mutual. We have the freedom not to experience this, but he believes we are wrong when we so choose.

These words make Auden seem profoundly pessimistic, but he was not. He believed in laughter, in getting on with life. He recognized that he had a choice between hope and despair and he chose hope and therefore learned to "bless what there is for being:"
That singular command I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?[6]
As Hannah Arendt said of him, his response to "the curse" was a "praise that pitches itself against all that is most unsatisfactory in man's condition on this earth and sucks its strength out of the wound." Arendt wrote this as a comment on lines in Auden's poem on W.B. Yeats.[7] Addressing Yeats, Auden makes a request:
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse.

In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Some sources:


"w. h. auden - family ghosts" website by Nicholas Jenkins, Department of English, Stanford University

Auden and Christianity by Arthur C. Kirsch (Yale University Press, 2005)

Auden’s Memorial to Yeats by Katherine Bailey

W. H. AUDEN’S WISDOM, FAITH, AND HUMOR by Walter G. Moss (pdf)

Auden and God by Edward Mendelson, reviewing Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch (pdf)

"Reflection on the Right to Will": Auden's "Canzone"and Arendt's Notes on Willing by SUSANNAH YOUNG-AH GOTTLIEB

"The Quest for Auden" by Austin Warren in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), pp. 229-248. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL:

"Auden's Religious Leap" by Justin Replogle in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter - Spring, 1966), pp. 47-75. Published by: University of Wisconsin Press Stable URL: .

Auden and the Limits of Poetry by Alan Jacobs

Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity 2011 April 12,
by Joshua Miller

Regions of sorrow: anxiety and messianism in Hannah Arendt and W.H. Auden by Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (Stanford University Press, 2003)

"Auden in the Fifties: Rites of Homage" by Monroe K. Spears in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1961), pp. 375-398. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: .

The Bible Is Dead; Long Live the Bible by Timothy Beal

Auden Explains Real Function of All Ritual published in the April 1, 1944 issue of the Phoenix

Prose: 1939-1948 by W.H. Auden, Vol. 2 (Princeton University Press, 2002)



[1] This is I Corinthians 15:39-41, 44. It concludes,
And so it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being.' The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
[2] "Making, Knowing, and Judging" by W.H. Auden, from The Dyer's Hand, Part IV

[3] Matthew 22:36-40 (King James Version)
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him,
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
[4] Auden wrote this in The Dyer's Hand ("Making, Knowing, and Judging"). Here is the context:
The impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful. This rite has no magical or idolatrous intention; nothing is expected in return. Nor is it, in a Christian sense, an act of devotion. If it praises the Creator, it does so indirectly by praising His creatures among which may be human notions of the Divine Nature. With God as Redeemer, it has, so far as I can see, little if anything to do.
[5] Here is the whole poem. It's available on a number of web sites. I don't mean to abuse copyright, however, and will remove it if shown that I've put it here improperly.
Friday's Child

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenbürg, April 9, 1945)

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought---
"Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent."
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what--
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,`
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.
[6] This comes from Auden's poem Precious five of 1950.

[7] On this, see my last blog post: insufflation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insights. The Shoah was also God`s plan... Sad to say but, it could not happen outside His plan... The reason? About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. The reason? Unknown to me as a human but i choose to accept... this is not fatalism or resignation to my fate... There is a purpose for this as it was a purpose for the Cross.

The Holocaust is always a nightmare that doe not leave me alone... Suffering is not separated from our human condition: "Always" bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body." 2 Cor 4:10

But the way of bearing this pain is not to blame God or man... it is to start from ourselves to not repeat hurting others in our best... tho impossible...ruining our planet and directing toward destructing even with the smallest sins we stay in: "the pale deaths which men miscall their lives."