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.

Auden himself believed he had rejected the Christian faith as a young man, but gradually found himself drawn back to it, partly in reaction to the brutal political realities emerging in the late 1930s, especially the rise of Nazism and the closing of the churches in civil war Spain, both of which shocked and dismayed him, and challenged the hold of left-progressive pieties. His chronic and tortured unhappiness in love also surely influenced him, as did an impressive encounter with the Anglican writer Charles Williams, who introduced him to the work of Kierkegaard and provided him a shining example of an accomplished intellectual who was also a thoroughgoing Christian.

But the questions that ate at him went much deeper than the mere matter of role models. How did one explain the destructive recalcitrance of the human heart, including one's own? How did one find a way to live decently within the content of a world, and a life, that seemed beyond redemption?

Such questions were never far away, and one can already begin to see the beginnings of a Christian reckoning with them emerging quite consciously in "As I walked out one evening" (1937): "Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless. . . . You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart"--the term "crooked" here carrying, of course, meanings both personal and general. By 1940, the time of his famous "September 1, 1939," he had formulated his own concise distillation of the conundrum of original sin: "For the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have / Not universal love / But to be loved alone."

There was a general intellectual excitement in those days about emerging works of serious theology, particularly Protestant theology, excitement that is hard to imagine today. Auden read widely in that literature, particularly in the works of his good friend Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and the other theological lions of the first half of the 20th century. But he was no theologian. He always seemed to feed on such works in an opportunistic spirit, having a poet's insouciance about the truth claims of systematic theology or apologetics and, indeed, for nearly all dogmatic assertions about questions of religion. Such theological reading chiefly served to replenish his fund of metaphors and similes. But in the end, he was convinced that all ratiocinations and speculations about God's nature were arrogant assumptions and empty human pretensions, merely learned ways of "taking His name in vain." Instead, he believed the worthiest Christians were those who remained perpetually humble and perpetually uneasy in their outlook, their minds stretched taut between the contrary poles of belief and skepticism.

"Our faith," he insisted, must be "well balanced by our doubt," for a Christian "is never something one is, only something one can pray to become." Christianity was a "way," a way of being in the world, not a set of intellectual propositions or a moral checklist or a map of all reality.

Such intellectual modesty helps explain the enduring appeal of his native Anglicanism, particularly in its high-church Anglo-Catholic form, precisely because it stressed "uniformity of rite" more than "uniformity of doctrine." It placed the elegant formal language of the Book of Common Prayer, and the spectacle of highly ritualized and impersonal sacramental corporate worship, at the center of things, and left private devotions and personal piety to the discretion of the individual, without much instruction or guidance or other moral busybodying from the Church itself. Light on doctrine and preachiness, heavy on smells and bells: that was the ticket for him. He had adored ritual from his youth, and even during days as a freewheeling vagabond leftist, he retained an ingrained tendency in that direction.

As his friend and collaborator Christopher Isherwood mused in 1937, "When we collaborate, I have to keep an eye on him. . . . If Auden had his way, he would turn every play into a cross between grand opera and high mass."

The needs behind that tendency went very deep. The structure and aesthetics of high Anglican worship were so agreeable to him, not for snobbish or campy-gay reasons, but precisely because they best embodied the pattern of impersonal dramatic repetition that he so desperately needed, the patterning that made it possible for the act of worship to be, for him, an act of personal re-integration.

"Only in rites," he would say, "can we renounce our oddities / and be truly entired." Only by yielding the chaos of his inner disorder to the controlling order and harmony of liturgical space and time could he be made whole. The idea that worship should be an act of spontaneous personal outward expressiveness, directed toward God and toward one's fellow congregants, could not have been further from his heart. On the contrary, he liked to insist, "orthodoxy is reticence," the form of reverence that is too reverent and tasteful to speak its name, at least not very loudly or often.

The irony in that formulation is that while Auden may have been reticent, at least in preferring to share his faith with others in an impersonal way, he certainly was very far from being orthodox, by anyone's reckoning of that term. There have been few more finicky grazers in the cafeteria of Christianity. He was skeptical of the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus, let alone the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which he dismissed as an errant effort to make the Jewish Mary into an honorary Aryan. He had no interest in questions of eschatology or the afterlife, insisting that Christianity was primarily a this-worldly faith.

He was, like Simone Weil, transfixed by the sufferings on the Cross, and thought of the Crucifixion as something perpetually reenacted in the imaginations of believers, who were forced to see their own sins in the passions of the murderous crowd. But he was indifferent to the victorious Resurrection. Indeed, although he was quite willing to believe in miracles, he doubted whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ ever actually occurred.

Needless to say, then, Auden's grasp of the doctrine of the trinity was equally idiosyncratic; in later life, he became a devotee of the Patripassian heresy, which posits that God the Father shared fully in the suffering of Christ the Son, an assertion that, in effect, erodes the distinctness of the two. And perhaps most outrageous of all, he declared, in a sermon delivered at Westminster Abbey in 1966, that the great theological statements of the Church, such as the Athanasian Creed, were best understood as "shaggy-dog stories," which "have a point but if you try too hard to put your finger on it, you will miss it."

Your guess is as good as mine as to what he meant by that, and Kirsch doesn't seem to know, either. But it sure doesn't sound like orthodoxy.

All these deviations from orthodoxy had something in common, however. They all flowed from Auden's passionate belief that Christianity, rightly understood, was the truest of the great world religions because it consistently affirmed the flesh. The doctrine of the Incarnation, that the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, was the font of all his Christian inspiration. Any ideas or doctrines that disparaged the body and its functions, exalted the idea of disembodied spirit, or that required the faithful to withdraw from the world to be holy, were anathema to him.

Devotion to God should be ever-present, but should not crowd out our appreciation of the fleshly world given us; instead, such devotion should be the cantus firmus of our lives, against which we play the sweet and sad counterpoint of our lives and works. Manicheanism and Platonism and Gnostic heresies were frequent targets, precisely because of their flesh-denying propensities, which fell short of the full Christian vision. So, too, did pure scientism or naturalism. The Incarnation meant, for Auden, "the coinherence of spirit and flesh," so that "materialism and manicheanism are mirror images of one another," the one by denying the spirit, the other by denying the flesh.

The flesh and spirit were in perpetual tension, yet they were also meant to be conjoined. As he wrote in 1963, "Our bodies cannot love: / But, without one, / What works of Love could we do?"

He could carry this kind of analysis to considerable lengths. In The Sea and the Mirror, his poetic gloss on Shakespeare's Tempest, Auden thought that the brutish Caliban ought to be seen as the coequal of the ethereal Ariel, and that the wizardly Prospero ought not to be exalted for his gifts, since doing so raised Spirit above Nature. Auden was insistent: Man was both a biological organism subject to the contingencies of Nature, and a spiritual being capable of transcendence.

Nor was this tension the only one that Auden sought to hold in place. The dualities of his mind and heart were as thickly and tightly strung as the inner frame of a concert grand. Like so many thinkers of the postwar era, in fields as diverse as political science, economics, and history, he was an equilibrist and contrapuntilist, who nearly always saw the optimal conditions for human flourishing as arising out of the interplay of countervailing forces, the tension of opposites.

The conflict between faith and doubt, for example, reflected two equally necessary facets of a complex singularity. A similar conflict was reflected in the tension between Catholic and Protestant, with the former emphasizing "the initial act of intellectual assent" and the latter "the continuous process of voluntary assent," arrived at through uninhibited self-questioning, and even the felix culpa of a descent into unbelief--a going-away for the sake of a more voluntary return. Without each other, the picture was incomplete: Catholics were in danger of complacently identifying the eternal with some particular institution, while the Protestant was in danger of ignoring institutions altogether, leaving the eternal disincarnate, and conceiving of religious life as a heroic individual quest.

But it was difficult to hold all these tensions in place at once. The famously creased and worry-worn Auden face--which he himself described as looking like an "unmade bed," and which as he grew older came increasingly to resemble a relief map of Nevada--perhaps embodies the difficulty of living one's life stretched out on the rack of opposites. There is an existential problem with seeing all of reality as a dense network of contrarieties, above which you stand, the heroically critical modernist intellectual who refuses to join any particular team.

What it means, in effect, is that you have chosen to be entirely alone. In fact, Auden lived a life of extreme isolation and often desperate loneliness, tortured with the thought that "there will never be a place which I can call home," and "never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh."

Whether that isolation was a choice made or a curse endured, how much of it can be reduced to Auden's ambivalence about his homosexuality--and the ways that ambivalence played out in his time and place and milieu--are questions that this book cannot answer. What is clear, however, is that Auden's sexuality was one among the many tensions that he was forced to manage somehow; and that he took considerable solace in the speculation that St. Paul's plaint of a "thorn in the flesh," which was both a curse and a blessing, might refer to the same thorn as his own.

Yet it is also clear that Auden himself would never have reduced his art to his thorn, and neither should we. For all his Anglican flourishes, he was in deepest temperament and conviction a modernist Protestant of the most extreme and Kierkegaardian variety. With him, the essential and ultimate solitude of the individual person was not only a personal theme but a cosmic principle.

"Each of us," he told a commencement audience at Smith College, must accept "the fact that in the last analysis we live our lives alone. Alone we choose, alone we are responsible." One can see why, for such a man, worship with a strong emphasis upon liturgical and sacramental life had such an appeal, precisely because it provided a formalized and impersonal way of connecting with others, a way of being together with them without letting down the veil of reticence, and yielding up any portion of his compulsive individuality.

But Arthur Kirsch helps us to see that Auden had his own peculiar orientation to the Christian life, one that, by choosing to confuse reticence with orthodoxy, and closing him to the simplest forms of religious fellowship, may have made him more isolated than he needed to be. Whatever the case, we can close Auden and Christianity convinced of the truth in its final sentence: "Auden was a great poet and critic, but he should also be remembered, and would have wished to be remembered, as a man who sought to lead a Christian life."

No one ever said that leading such a life was neat and easy, and Auden's record of his struggle to do so may be the greatest and most encouraging of his gifts to us.

Wilfred M. McClay, who teaches humanities and history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is author of the forthcoming Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.