The Magazine

Grappling with God

The faith of a famous poet.

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
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Auden and Christianity

by Arthur Kirsch

Yale, 240 pp., $30

IT'S A SAFE BET THAT W.H. AUDEN would have been suspicious of the idea behind this book. True, he was forthcoming about his attraction to the Christian faith, an attraction that remained strong even during his years of professed atheism, and became explicit after his formal return to the church in 1940. He was equally forthcoming in lamenting what he called the "prudery" of "cultured people" who treat religious belief as the last remaining shameful thing, and find theological terms "far more shocking than any of the four-letter words." Furthermore, there can be no doubt that Auden was, and deserves to be known as, a Christian writer, rather than a writer who merely happened to be Christian. Many of his most distinguished works of poetry and criticism, especially in his American years, are not only indebted to, but positively enveloped in, the riches of Christian narrative, language, imagery, allusion, and moral insight.

The notion that religious faith and serious thought are mutually exclusive categories always struck Auden as risible and unintelligible. But he would have bristled at an effort to separate out his religious beliefs and restate them as systematic propositions, or examine them independently or thematically, rather than see them as players in his rich and various inner symbolic drama. Such an undertaking would probably have struck him as unspeakably vulgar and, moreover, an invasion of his privacy, putting his devotional life on display and forcing him unwillingly to be judged by the public standard of a "religious" man, a role for which he felt singularly ill-equipped.

He was only too aware of how undisciplined and unsanctified his imagination was. His thoughts, as he wrote late in life, wandered freely from the sacred to the profane and back again, "potter[ing] / from verses to sex to God / without punctuation." And since the sexual thoughts in question were generally of what H.L. Mencken called the "non-Euclidean" variety, a persuasion that Auden firmly believed to be sinful or "crooked," but which he nevertheless embraced unrepentantly, their constant intermingling with his religious yearnings and literary aspirations made for an exceedingly complicated sensibility.

That, however, only means that the extraordinary poet was also an ordinary sinner, and that is just how he is presented to us in this generous and humane book, which will be an important addition to the shelf of essential writings on Auden, and will be especially valued for the light it sheds upon the role played by his religious beliefs in the workings of his creative imagination.

Scholars, though, will not be the only readers to benefit from it. As young writers and visual artists with traditional religious commitments seek fresh ways of thinking about how they might integrate their faith and their work, and thereby restore a sense of high and culture-molding seriousness to the calling of art, they would do well to ponder the strengths and weaknesses of Auden's example, a task that Arthur Kirsch will have made much easier for them.

His rendering of the interplay between Auden's literary and religious concerns proceeds with meticulous and self-effacing care, moving gracefully between biographical account and textual analysis, in a tone free of jargon and pedantry, seeking not to ride a thesis but rather to open Auden's works to us more fully. Unlike so many self-important literary scholars, who seem compelled to assert their superiority to their subject, Kirsch renders himself nearly invisible. He never tries to compete with the eloquence of Auden, being content to provide us with the most spare and functional prose, designed mainly to frame and showcase the book's copious quotations from the poet himself. His quiet sympathy has but one purpose: to draw the reader back to the texts and their author.

In some respects, Auden's theological orientation and reflections are emblematic of a particular historical moment, the mid-20th-century decades when the cataclysms of world war and the thwarting of the progressive faith led so many serious, secular-minded Western thinkers to reconsider the claims of the Christian intellectual tradition, even down to the forbidding doctrine of original sin.