09 May 2006

On W.H. Auden.

Wilfred McClay reviews a new biography of W.H. Auden by Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity.
"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.
Here's Auden his own self reading "After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics."


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