In his original (1932) essay entitled Writing, Auden describes a time in human history when “man became self-conscious, he began to feel. I am I, and you are Not-I; we are shut inside ourselves and apart from each other”. The emergence of this new self-conscious individual brought about the fragmentation of the small communities in which primitive man had existed as an integral part of a continual life-force. This process of development of the individual produced a sense of loss of his feeling of group ‘being’, resulting in a fearful awareness of human mortality and a deeply rooted urge “to recover the sense of being as much part of his life as the cells in his body are part of him”. An analogy can clearly be made with the Christian myth of man’s Fall from grace, so that this yearning can be considered in religious terms as a desire to return to the prelapsarian condition, or even more specifically, as man’s awareness of his need for God. Man’s Fall, or isolation from the community, left him with the awesome responsibility of his own ultimate destiny. The human condition is therefore a paradoxical one; man is both a spirit endowed with consciousness and free will, and a creature composed of matter, bound by the limitations of a temporal existence by which he is compelled to conform to the laws of nature. In short, a dualism has occurred between mind and body, and man is divided by the conflicting demands of his spiritual needs and finite limitations. Not all the limitations we face are physical; we are also psychologically creatures of our time in history and of our particular culture. Auden’s preoccupation with this paradoxical condition is manifest in much of his work.
In Time of War presents a condensed history of civilisation and its failures caused by this repetitive shift away from our spiritual centre. We are currently in the epoch of the ‘third great disappointment’, the advent of which can be traced to the Renaissance and is characterised by the dualism between mind and body and the anxiety resulting from this. In New Year Letter (page references to which relate to the Faber edition of Auden’s Collected Longer Poems), Auden lays the blame on the humanism that was part of the Renaissance for the emergence of ‘a new Anthropos,/an Empiric Economic Man’ (p.116), who promoted the advancement of the individual at the cost of the good of society. This economic man, in allowing himself to be ruled by the demands of his fragile ego, effectively became ‘captured by his liberty’, and this self-serving individualism finds its ultimate expression in modern life in America: ‘That culture that had worshipped no/Virgin before the Dynamo’ (p.123). Machinery and individualism, the legacies of the Renaissance, have finally destroyed the community and left people isolated.
In section XXVII of the earlier poem (page 78 of Auden’s Selected Poems, to which further reference to this work relates), Auden states: ‘We live in freedom by necessity’. The ‘gift’ of choice is a terrifying one, enforcing upon us the onus of responsibility for our individual lives and the future of mankind. Inevitably, this element of choice has become an essential hazard which man is reluctant, although continually doomed, to face. Historically, man has emerged as ‘a childish creature/… Who by the lightest wind was changed and shaken. /And looked for truth and was continually mistaken’ (p.65). Yet despite this vulnerability to err, we are constantly compelled to choose, thereby demonstrating our freedom in our capacity to influence our own destiny. Whether we try to escape into the past or look to the future to recapture our ideal, lost state, we are forced to confront the uncertainty of our choice. In effect, we have moved from the original perfect state of ‘being’ into the imperfect one of ‘becoming’, and the goal we must strive for, according to In Time of War is a maturity that lies elusively ahead of us and the path to which is obstructed by ‘dangers’ and ‘punishments’. There can be no going back, for angels guard Eden against man’s re-entry; and in New Year Letter, Auden draws on the biblical allegory of Lot’s wife to show the futility of attempting this form of retreat. Human development has to be seen in terms of a quest and life’s journey will always be complicated by the element of choice.
In New Year Letter, Auden pursues this theme, describing man’s fear of choice, which becomes bound up in the workings of the devil, who personifies our dilemma. In trying to lure men into making the wrong choice, the devil actually keeps us aware of the existence of choice. By preying on our doubts, he manages to ‘Point us the way to find truth out… To prove that we possess free will’ (p.91). The devil’s function is to keep us sinning (as distinct from doing evil, which need not necessarily be a conscious act) and to achieve this he has to keep us in a state of doubt or anxiety. (This leaves the devil, himself, in a paradoxical situation in which his monist claims come into conflict with his dualist tactics). Anxiety, therefore, is a pre-requisite of sin and is man’s natural condition. In Part II of this poem, the devil, whilst having no positive existence, is identified with ‘a recurrent state/Of fear and faithlessness and hate’ (p.92) this condition has found a ‘legal personality’ in man. Faith and love are therefore the tools by which the devil’s will can be counteracted and salvation achieved. In Part III of New Year Letter, Auden explains that ‘In time we sin./But Time is sin and can forgive;/Time is the life with which we live’ (p.108). Our temporal existence must be viewed as a ‘purgatorial hill’ and it is faith that will enable us to ‘Ascend the penitential way’, which is the route to salvation. The love we must demonstrate is the Christian Agape, which alone can reunite Eros and Logos and thus restore order. Faith and love are, therefore, the solutions Auden explores in two of his later, longer poems.
Around the time Auden wrote his essay entitled Writing, he described in his poem A Summer Night, an experience of communal awareness when he sat ‘Equal with colleagues in a ring’ and experienced a mystical revelation that he later described as an example of ‘A Vision of Agape’, and which had a lasting influence upon him. The relationship of this experience to the fundamental urge, described in the essay Writing, to return to the desirable former lost state of being, which remains the utopia of ‘the poet and legislator’ is evident. In Part III of New Year Letter, a simulation of good will (or a symbolic glimpse of Agape in the material world) is artificially induced by seasonal revelry and alcohol to evoke, in the poet, a nostalgia for the well-remembered sense of ‘privileged community’, or harmony that can exist between true friends of like minds as described in A Summer Night. The symbolic, sacramental experience is akin to a glimpse of Agape in the material world. The attempt to rediscover this lost condition is a major theme of his Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Age of Anxiety (page references to which refer to Collected Longer Poems), where four strangers in a New York bar achieve an alcohol-induced rapport and embark on an imaginary, mystical quest to recapture this original state.
The four characters demonstrate the anxiety that is man’s natural condition, and which is, as Auden points out in his Prologue, especially pronounced in wartime. Presumably this is because war forces man to confront his mortal existence and therefore acknowledge his deeply-rooted sense of guilt or ‘Incomprehensible comprehensive dread/At not being what he knows that before/This world he was willed to become’ (p.272). The initial, private reveries of the four introduce the theme of guilt and innocence and each character bears a specific relationship to the symbolic patterns within the poem. Rosetta, a successful Jewish businesswoman, illustrates the rootlessness of her race, and her spiritual insecurity is expressed in images of isolation and persecution. Rosetta hides behind her dreams and fantasies, moving through a landscape of Innocence and representing the faculty of feeling. Malin, a Canadian Air Force Intelligence Officer, denotes intellect. Despite his evident cynicism, he finally acknowledges the pathetic delusions and limitations of ‘The poor muddled maddened mundane animal/Who is hostess to us all’ (p.352), and recognises the need for some supra-human guidance or intervention. Malin, therefore, presents the Christian standpoint or solution and, with his superior powers of perception, acts as a guide. Quant is an Irish widower, advancing in years, who has lost his sense of purpose. Life, to him, is meaningless, and he also retreats into an imaginary world where his penchant for classical mythology can find sensitive expression. To the others, and to himself, Quant appears as a failure; trapped in a mundane job which is beneath his intellectual abilities, and alien to his romantic sensibilities. He is frustrated and disillusioned, and represents the faculty of intuition. Emble displays all the insecurities of youth, and is motivated by ambition and a yearning for adventure. Fully aware of his sexual attraction, Emble, appropriately, denotes the sensual impulses.
All the guilt, uncertainty and fear, which is man’s perpetual condition, finds expression through these characters, and is further explored in their discussion of ‘the incessant Now of/The traveller through time’ in his perennial ‘quest of his own/Absconded self’ (p.271). Beginning with the Fall, man’s psychological development, his growing anxiety which is the result of the caprices of will and sexual love (or Eros), is traced through the Seven Ages.
There is a growing rapport, aided by alcohol, between the four characters, which resembles the enchantment, or the ‘privileged community’ described in both A Summer Night and New Year Letter. Self-confidence is enhanced and inhibiting barriers eroded, to produce a state where ‘communication of thoughts and feelings is so accurate and instantaneous that they appear to function as a single organism; (p.296). In this condition, they take the ‘Repressive road to Grandmother’s house’ (p.296) in search of self-reconciliation and escape from guilt, fear and anxiety. The climax of the quest is the ‘hermetic garden’ and this is clearly the same as the ‘ancient South/... the warm nude ages of instinctive poise’ of In Time of War (p.78) and the ‘native lands’ of The field of Being’, in which lies ‘Eternal Innocence’, as described in New Year Letter (p.106). Thus the journey through the symbolic landscape of the Seven Stages is anticipated, even in the language, of the earlier poems.
The group’s experience in the ‘hermetic garden’ is therefore an elaboration of the theme of Part III of New Year Letter, in which Auden attempts to reconcile the aesthetic and ethical concerns of Parts I and II through love (Agape). Part III of this work explores the theme of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ (the human condition having already been established as one of ‘becoming’). The condition of ‘being’, whilst not altogether inaccessible, cannot be willed nor assumed to be man’s permanent, possible state. To glimpse it is merely to experience an ‘accidental happiness’, a vision of Agape, that must be appreciated for its therapeutic value: ‘man must eat it and depart/At once with gay and grateful heart,/Obedient, reborn, re-aware’ (p.106). The danger lies in deluding ourselves that this state is our permanent, natural inheritance, for to do this is to deny the inherent imperfections of the human condition. The state of ‘being’ is a perfect one, and mankind in general has a long way to go before attaining this state of perfection. If we refuse to acknowledge this, then we will spring ‘the trap of Hell’, which is ‘the being of the lie’ (p.107), because it proves our inability to distinguish between illusion and reality.
This is confirmed by the experiences of Rosetta, Malin, Quant and Emble in the ‘hermetic garden’, on the journey to which, each one, significantly, experiences sexual attraction which they consider to be love. The charms of the garden rapidly begin to work on them like an ‘accusation’, making them ‘uneasy and unwell’ (p.320), and acutely aware of their human imperfections, and particularly their sins of love. What is implied is that sexual love (Eros), the object of which is self-created, must necessarily be self-serving and therefore responsible for keeping man away from his true goal. The influence of the garden is to disturb their ideas about love and crate self-doubt, or anxiety. Emble is reminded of his mother’s grief, which ‘scorns and scares’ him. The sims of his mortal body – his pursuit of sensual gratification – rear up to reproach him. Quant confronts the injustices his over-active imagination has invented to create dissatisfaction wit his lot in life, and Malin is forced to recognise how his sense of intellectual superiority has made him ‘feel too good/At being better than the best of my colleagues’. Rosetta is guilty of that coldness of feeling which manifests as snobbery, and finds expression in her ‘sneers/At the poor and plain’ (p.321), and each one plunges into the ‘labyrinthine forest’ of his or her private guilt to escape from the overwhelming sense of accusation and shame, thus re-enacting the original Fall or dispersal of the community representing man’s spiritual centre. As in the earlier poem, In Time of War: ‘They hid their pride,/… They knew exactly what to do outside./They left: immediately the memory faded’ (p.65). Rosetta, Malin, Quant and Emble retreat ‘down solitary paths’ into the lonely desert of the ‘Lands beyond love’, where ‘their fears are confirmed, their hopes denied’ (pp.322,24,26), and in which, because of these fears, they avoid facing the final, difficult choice, which is essentially the religious one. When they awake from this strange experience, ‘What they had just dreamed they could no longer recall exactly’ (p.329). Nevertheless, the four characters cannot immediately shake off the disturbing effect of their ‘dream’, which creates a ‘mutual mood of discouragement’, and in The Dirge, they discuss the possibility of mankind being rescued from his problematical condition by ‘some semi-divine stranger with superhuman powers, some Gilgamesh or Napoleon, some Solon or Sherlock Holmes’ (p.330). New Year Letter also anticipates and belies this solution in tracing the rise and fall of the various political claims of the past centuries. Essentially, Auden’s view seems to be that political idealism merely advocates or resembles that despotism which is diabolic in origin and therefore incapable of offering a solution.
Although Rosetta progresses to a certain maturity, in that she renounces her dreams or illusions and begins, for the first time, to accept her real, unglamorous childhood, which could be interpreted as a recognition of the ‘penitential way’ advocated as the solution in New Year Letter, it is Malin, in his final speeches, who most closely represents Auden’s analysis of the human condition, and affirms the need for the religious, or Christian choice. Malin observes that we would go to any lengths rather than ‘climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die’ (p.350). We exist in the dark because we cannot comprehend the connection between ‘The clock we are bound to obey/And the miracle we must not despair of’ (p.351), or in other words, find a way of reconciling our temporal and historical existence to our eternal one. Agape, which lies beyond the powers of reason and imagination, and can only be reached through faith, offers a solution to this dilemma. It begins simply with ‘Knowing our neighbour’ (p.352), but in our avoidance of this and ‘in choosing how many/And how much they will love, our minds insist on/Their own disorder as their own punishment’ (p.353), we continually deny this solution.
Mankind is, as Auden so succinctly puts it in In Time of War, ‘articled to error’ (p.78), because we are continually doomed to make choices, and choice is an inevitable consequence of our paradoxical condition. We are, as Malin explains in The Age of Anxiety: ‘Temporals pleading for eternal life’ (p.352), which represents that yearning to return to our prelapsarian state of ‘being’. In Auden’s opinion, there is only one route to this and that is through faith. Divine Grace has never been denied us, but in our inability to look beyond our temporal status (an inability compounded by fear and anxiety), we have inevitably obscured our vision and prevented ourselves from overcoming our dualistic condition. New Year Letter ends on an affirmation of God and a prayer for divine intervention to effectively shake us out of our state of fear and ignorance, which keeps us in stagnant isolation. In The Age of Anxiety, Malin, who represents the intellect and whom I have come to identify with the poet himself, believes that Christian Agape can repair the rift between the individual and society and re-unite the fragmented faculties of feeling, intellect, intuition and sensation, to restore the human condition to its original state of ‘being’ or unity.
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
Auden, W. H., Selected Poems, Faber (1994)
Auden, W.H. Collected Longer Poems, Faber (2012)
Auden, W.H., The Map of All My Youth (Ed) K. Bucknell, N. Jenkins, Oxford University Press (1990)
Fuller, J., A Reader’s Guide to W.H. Auden, Thames and Hudson (1970)
Spears, M.K., The Poetry of W.H. Auden, Oxford University Press (1963)
Essay on New Year Letter at Society for U.S. Intellectual History
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