The Bushel Basket
March 4, 2014 1:00 PM   Subscribe


 
Perhaps my favorite Auden, though not his best or best known, is "Song of the Master and Boatswain" from The Sea and the Mirror
posted by Diablevert at 1:04 PM on March 4, 2014


I love this story because it pairs nicely with the revelation that Larkin, who I believe basically worshipped Auden, turned out to be a raging ass in his own journals.
posted by Think_Long at 1:10 PM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Larkin ...turned out to be a raging ass in his own journals.

I don't think that it was much of a surprise, though. Wasn't Larkin always considered a massive schmuck?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:14 PM on March 4, 2014


Yeah probably. Maybe the level of his misogyny was the surprise? I could be mis remembering.
posted by Think_Long at 1:20 PM on March 4, 2014


I had the opportunity once to swim in open ocean, several hundred miles offshore. While I was swimming I was overcome by vertigo, having just realized the dizzying depths below me.

I'd not heard of Auden before today, and the sensation of reading about him and his works (known and unknown) is interestingly like that twenty-years ago feeling of vertigo.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by Mooski at 1:33 PM on March 4, 2014 [15 favorites]


What a wonderful man. I love his poetry. I know the thousand points of light quote from Bush became a joke, but it is lovely to know that Auden actually lived his life according to the ideals of his poems.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of authority
Whose buildings grope the sky;
There is no such things as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in a stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages;
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

from September 1, 1939
posted by onlyconnect at 1:44 PM on March 4, 2014 [16 favorites]


I love yiddish so much, so many of it's words drip with awesomeness.

One of those words I love is mensch. I didn't know of Auden before this post, but if that article is 90% lies, he still seems imminently qualified for the word - Auden is a mensch.
posted by el io at 1:49 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wow. I had no idea Auden had drifted so far out of the general cultural conversation that people could just straight up not have heard of him. In the 1930s and 40s he was probably among the four or five most famous living poets in the English language.
posted by yoink at 1:52 PM on March 4, 2014 [23 favorites]


That's a lovely little piece, thanks for linking it. I didn't realize the bit about his religious views (at the end of the essay).
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:02 PM on March 4, 2014


In 1939 he left England for America, partly to escape his own public status.

Those seem pretty weaselly words, but I suppose an American readership may think WWII started in 1941.
posted by Segundus at 2:03 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


He was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed

I love this. Fascinating read. I know some of his work but didn't know much about him as a person and I feel richer for having read this.

"We must love one another or die"
Amen.
posted by billiebee at 2:07 PM on March 4, 2014


Alan Jacobs writes about some of the reasons Auden faded from public consciousness.

Auden, by contrast, left England for America in January of 1939 and never returned for anything more than an extended visit. Though only thirty–one at the time, he was one of the most famous writers in England—he was twenty–six when the phrase "the Auden generation" entered the language—and his failure to return to his native land when war broke out later that year was denounced by angry MPs in the House of Commons.

What had been "crushing" to him was his status as the spokesman for his generation; what freed him was finding, in America, a refuge from his admirers.

posted by straight at 2:10 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Those are both excellent, thought-provoking essays; thanks for posting them. (And yeah, it boggles my mind that anyone could be unaware of Auden!)
posted by languagehat at 2:14 PM on March 4, 2014


Wow. I had no idea Auden had drifted so far out of the general cultural conversation that people could just straight up not have heard of him.

It's not Auden, but poetry that's drifted out of the cultural conversation, I'm afraid. Not surprising to me at all, though sad.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:16 PM on March 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


I haven't read that Jacobs piece yet, straight, but I'm wondering if perhaps Auden's work wasn't modern enough to stick in the American conscience as his other, more experimental contemporaries?

No shame in not knowing who Auden is - 20c poetry is vast and complex, afterall.
posted by Think_Long at 2:18 PM on March 4, 2014


Wow. I had no idea Auden had drifted so far out of the general cultural conversation that people could just straight up not have heard of him. In the 1930s and 40s he was probably among the four or five most famous living poets in the English language.

The whole concept of having a handful of famous living poets seems to have fallen out of the general cultural conversation, possibly along with the more general concept of a public lettered intellectual.

I like poetry and have even been known to buy it, and I have some friends who do too, but we are a decided minority and I can't think of a list longer than two names (Billy Collins and Mary Oliver) that seem to come up often.
posted by weston at 2:19 PM on March 4, 2014


Nikki Giovanni can still sell out a theater.
posted by Think_Long at 2:29 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Those seem pretty weaselly words, but I suppose an American readership may think WWII started in 1941.

Auden left for the U.S. in January 1939, nearly 8 months before war was declared (though it was clearly brewing, giving the invasion of the Sudetenland a few months earlier), so I guess I'm missing where the author's phrasing is somehow indicative of the mass stupidity of Americans.

Anyway, thanks for the post. I always loved Auden -- when I was teaching English in grad school, one of the poems that always went over well with my students was Musée des Beaux Arts.
posted by scody at 2:32 PM on March 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's not Auden, but poetry that's drifted out of the cultural conversation, I'm afraid. Not surprising to me at all, though sad.

Well, perhaps. But I'd be amazed if we had a thread on, say, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Robert Frost or, I don't know, Sylvia Plath and we had people saying "I'd never heard of this person until today." It may well be that poetry's status has faded, but Auden seems to have faded faster than many.

My favorite story about Auden. He loved word games, puzzles and anagrams and delighted in discovering that his own full name was an anagram of "Hug a shady wet nun."
posted by yoink at 2:47 PM on March 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


In 1939 he left England for America, partly to escape his own public status.

It may have been fairly...uncomfortable to be a widely-regarded pillar of the Left in 1939; I don't think that the changing political climate in the runup to war necessarily invalidates the stated motive of wanting to escape his own reputation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:06 PM on March 4, 2014



Auden came to dislike and, eventually, disavow the poem September 1, 1939 mainly because he felt the line "We must love one another or die" was false. We die no matter what. In subsequent anthologies he insisted on changing "or" to "and," making the poem truer but bleaker.

I didn't like learning that when I first read it but now can see that "and" gives the line an austere beauty. It makes it a much better poem.
posted by mono blanco at 3:17 PM on March 4, 2014 [11 favorites]


I agree Auden still has that kind of stature in my mind, but I've actually recently had interactions with seemingly educated YAs that had no clue who Eliot was.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:18 PM on March 4, 2014


We've all experienced the ambivalence of learning that an artist whose work we admire possessed abhorrent personal qualities. How lovely that my appreciation of Auden does not need to be muddled by this. As an aside, I remember years ago, being confused by the pronunciation of his name, until seeing it rhymed with "broaden" in a sonnet by Marilyn Hacker, who provides another gentle view of the poet here.

And because you have given me an excuse, please find here one of my favorite Auden poems, "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love." Not as sublime, perhaps, but something I have reason to think of often, is "Law, Like Love."
posted by Morrigan at 3:53 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Not knowing who Auden is reminds me of the previous post about the kids not knowing what a rotary phone is. It's kinda sad, but... it happens.
posted by freakazoid at 4:30 PM on March 4, 2014


Wow. I had no idea Auden had drifted so far out of the general cultural conversation that people could just straight up not have heard of him

People don't spontaneously talk about poetry much anymore. I had *heard* of Auden, I had read a little Auden, but what really made an impression was that Joseph Brodsky (poet in residence at U of Michigan when I was a student) was always mentioning him as an essential part of existence. Then when I was working on Long Island, Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize, and every Polish person I knew was shouting in joy and printing out poems for me to read.

So I will point out that there's a nice article on e.e. cummings in this week's New Yorker. People are at risk of only knowing that one poem.
posted by acrasis at 4:38 PM on March 4, 2014


Speaking of being astonished at Auden's lack of currency, I am still waiting to see if there's ever a re-evaluation of Pound. Has he been let out of the pound yet? Will it ever happen? Can you enjoy his poetry even while acknowledging his horrible personal faults? For that matter, Eliot was not exactly innocent when it came to anti-Semitism, but he gets nowhere near the opprobrium. It seems Pound is about Celine level of 'never coming back'.
posted by VikingSword at 4:42 PM on March 4, 2014


Auden came to dislike and, eventually, disavow the poem September 1, 1939

Auden continued to rewrite and reedit nearly all his poems throughout his life. People can often be shocked to discover that their favorite lines of Auden's have been tossed in some later "Selected" or "Collected" that he oversaw.
posted by yoink at 4:56 PM on March 4, 2014




but poetry that's drifted out of the cultural conversation, I'm afraid.
---
People don't spontaneously talk about poetry much anymore.
----

I would respectfully disagree with these sentiments. I was just introduced to an aging poet the other day: 'Schoolly D'. Poetry is alive, vibrant, and doing great. It just has some wack beats and turntablism behind it.
posted by el io at 5:09 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh, if we're sharing favorite Auden, how about some love for "In Praise of Limestone."
posted by yoink at 5:14 PM on March 4, 2014


Not knowing who Auden is reminds me of the previous post about the kids not knowing what a rotary phone is. It's kinda sad, but... it happens.

Kids not knowing what a rotary phone is doesn't "just happen." It's a travesty.
posted by Auden at 5:49 PM on March 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


If somehow you're unaware of this poem from Auden's other not-so-secret life, The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay) is a delightfully raunchy gay sex poem. From 1948, apparently.
posted by Nelson at 5:58 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I took British Lit as a junior in high school and came away thinking that Auden was the only really good English poet from the 19th or 20th century.

I know, I know, what an insufferably snotty thing for a 16-year-old to think, but I was not wrong that Auden was terrific.

Thanks so much for this!
posted by allthinky at 7:05 PM on March 4, 2014


It is true that there's some great poetry being done in new media and in new expressive modes like hip hop, but the printed lyrical poem doesn't get much cultural traction these days, nor does the narrative poem. If you look at the arts as a sort of zero-sum, there-can-be-only-one competition among older and newer art forms, then I suppose you might shrug it off and say, "Well, we don't listen to eight tracks anymore either..." but I think that view is a little silly. And it's disappointing to see poetry of the print variety (with the millennia of history and tradition that stands behind it) lose so much of its cultural influence in such a seemingly short time. But maybe that's a trend that's reversing. The internet seems to offer a lot of options for people seeking out poetry these days, at least.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:17 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Vikingsword: Speaking of being astonished at Auden's lack of currency, I am still waiting to see if there's ever a re-evaluation of Pound. Has he been let out of the pound yet? Will it ever happen? Can you enjoy his poetry even while acknowledging his horrible personal faults?

Well... Re-evaluation since when? It's clear that many have been willing for some time to overlook Pound's association with Fascism for the sake of his poetry (and it's not clear to me how the two can be teased apart). He won the first Bollingen Prize, New Directions has kept almost all of his books in print for decades now, Hugh Kenner began advancing Pound as a serious poet in the early 50s (this effort culminating in the incredible The Pound Era in 1971), Pound's shorter poetry is widely anthologized, and the Library of America published a Pound collection only a few years ago. Hell, there was an emo band in the 90s called 'Ezra Pound' and there's even a rapper who calls himself 'Ezra Pound'.

For that matter, Eliot was not exactly innocent when it came to anti-Semitism, but he gets nowhere near the opprobrium. It seems Pound is about Celine level of 'never coming back'.

Pound's anti-Semitism was in an entirely other category than Eliot's, though.

I know little about Auden and haven't read TFA, but the Pound question seems like a good occasion to point out that Auden, like so many other poets in the 30s, for a time was drawn to celebrate or justify that decade's political violence. Which prompted the remark from George Orwell, "Mr Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled." (I'd better go read the article now.)
posted by cobra libre at 8:10 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Auden is one of those poets that I love so much I flatly refuse to write on him, analyze him or (except very rarely) teach him. I first learned of him when I read the "Amanda Cross" mystery Poetic Justice in high school. Caroline Heilbrun opened every chapter with an Auden quote, and has Kate Fansler discuss her love of his poetry: "Hastily mounting her ramshackle wheel/Fortune has peddled furiously away" stuck in my head instantly. The description of the toilet as "the room the Arabs call/The house where everybody goes" is pretty vivid too.

My copies of the Collected and Selected poems are all in my office, and some of my favorites ("out on the lawn I lie in bed") aren't online. But there's always In Memory of W. B. Yeats

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
posted by jrochest at 8:53 PM on March 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


Absolutely lovely.

Auden’s sense of his divided motives was inseparable from his idiosyncratic Christianity. He had no literal belief in miracles or deities and thought that all religious statements about God must be false in a literal sense but might be true in metaphoric ones. He felt himself commanded to an absolute obligation—which he knew he could never fulfill—to love his neighbor as himself, and he alluded to that commandment in a late haiku: “He has never seen God/but, once or twice, he believes/he has heard Him.” He took communion every Sunday and valued ancient liturgy, not for its magic or beauty, but because its timeless language and ritual was a “link between the dead and the unborn,” a stay against the complacent egoism that favors whatever is contemporary with ourselves.

I think this will be my new religion now, and I will start with a March of drowning in Auden.
posted by redsparkler at 9:15 PM on March 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Everyone knows Auden because of Two Weddings and a Funeral. People do know contemporary poets. I think Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes were pretty much household names - I mean, you wouldn't have to explain who they were if you mentioned them in conversation . Of the living I would say Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, both pretty well known. Sorry this is UK-centric.
posted by communicator at 11:37 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


People do know contemporary poets.

Really? Certainly doesn't seem to be the case in the states. Maybe it's a bit analogous to the way physicists used to be actually known to the public; there was probably a time when literate people commonly read poetry. Or if illiterate, listened to it around the hearth when the sun went down. Anyhoo, I'd bet my bottom dollar that if you went down to the local bar/boozer and asked Joe Punter for the name of a living poet that he's read, that you'd come up basically blank. Now that I think about it, and being that Seamus just passed, I'm not sure *I* can name a living poet I've read recently, and they used to say I was the bookish type.

Great post btw. I actually haven't read that much Auden (think I might snap up a volume or two; any recommendations?), but always knew of him via my Yeats fanboyism, and have long considered this to be one of the loveliest verses I've ever encountered:

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers


Especially, "the provinces of his body revolted". Hell, "the current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers" too. Marvelous.
posted by amorphatist at 1:12 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


This coming from the person that wrote:

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)


He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

— W.H. Auden

I always thought that (relevant, insightful, haunting) poem seemed like the work of a cynic. It's comforting to realize that Auden's cynicism was also tempered by a great compassion.
posted by yaymukund at 5:42 AM on March 5, 2014


Speaking of being astonished at Auden's lack of currency, I am still waiting to see if there's ever a re-evaluation of Pound. Has he been let out of the pound yet? Will it ever happen?

I agree with cobra libre - I don't think Pound has ever really left the conversation, or if he has, it wasn't due to his fascist sensibilities. Any collection on modernism will have him. Almost everything written about Eliot will have some mention of Pound's guidance.
posted by Think_Long at 6:14 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, yaymukund, isn't every cynic just a romantic who had his heart broke, and now likes to sit muttering over the shards?

Auden's greatness was in straddling both---shot through with love and cynicism, and because of that, grief. "As I Walked One Evening" shows it best, perhaps.
posted by Diablevert at 7:19 AM on March 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


oh god that's so beautiful.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:57 AM on March 5, 2014


If we're bringing early 20thc poets pack into the public consciousness, can we do Millay next?
posted by nonasuch at 8:08 AM on March 5, 2014


Auden came to dislike and, eventually, disavow the poem September 1, 1939 mainly because he felt the line "We must love one another or die" was false. We die no matter what. In subsequent anthologies he insisted on changing "or" to "and," making the poem truer but bleaker.

I didn't like learning that when I first read it but now can see that "and" gives the line an austere beauty. It makes it a much better poem.


Ritsos tackles the same subject too; it may help knowing he was confined to a sanatorium for tb for years, was involved in the Greek Resistance and civil war and got sent to prison camps twice.

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.


NB that δόξα in the original means glory rather than faith.
posted by ersatz at 8:33 AM on March 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


Auden, like so many other poets in the 30s, for a time was drawn to celebrate or justify that decade's political violence. Which prompted the remark from George Orwell, "Mr Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled."

It's a really, really bad (and unsustainable) reading of Auden to say that he was "drawn to celebrate or justify that decade's political violence." Orwell was objecting to one specific line in a poem of Auden's he otherwise praised: "The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder." As Auden himself said, Orwell's criticism of the line was "densely unjust": it was not a flippant 'celebration' of violence--quite the opposite; it was a painful acceptance that if you're not a pacifist (as Orwell certainly was not--Orwell, like Auden, supported the struggle against fascism in Spain, which was what Auden's poem was about) then you must also accept that you are advocating that people be killed, that you genuinely believe their deaths to be "necessary," even if you also recognize that you cannot simply wash your hands of your moral responsibility for those deaths.

It is the absolute opposite of a "celebration" of violence. It is a recognition that all violence against human beings is abhorrent, and that you should be aware that you will carry a moral stain if you advocate such violence even if, ultimately, you believe that violence to be "necessary."

Orwell and Auden ended up being friends, by the way.
posted by yoink at 8:41 AM on March 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


I found that article surprisingly moving, and I can't get enough Auden.
posted by latkes at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2014


As Auden himself said, Orwell's criticism of the line was "densely unjust":

I wouldn't say it was unjust, exactly -- they were pulling at the problem from different ends: Auden was saying that in order to be honest with yourself you have to admit that even killing for a just cause is still at heart a murder, whereas Orwell was saying that only a person who didn't know from real murder would have it in him to draw that parallel. Orwell would say that a person who kills in, for example, a justified war shouldn't accept the guilt of murder that Auden says he should accept, and would be utterly crushed if he did, and that if Auden really knew about that kind of guilt, he would know why. It's actually a rather nice little illustration of one of the points the article makes: Orwell really, really had to believe that he was doing right, in a way that Auden maybe didn't, because he was devastated when he felt he was doing wrong in a way that Auden maybe wasn't. No wonder that a person with that temperament would feel that the only person who could stand to utter the phrase "necessary murder" would be someone who didn't really understand what he was saying.
posted by ostro at 11:51 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


If somehow you're unaware of this poem from Auden's other not-so-secret life, The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay) is a delightfully raunchy gay sex poem. From 1948, apparently.

I love the thrilling sense I get from reading, for the first time, the words of someone who came so much before I ever had the ability to do so.

His ring convulsed round my finger. Ah, the swoon.

Thanks Nelson!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:30 PM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


I found it a little irritating that this article eventually came around to the idea that "Arcadians were not as innocent as they thought" -- but only because of their lurking Utopian tendencies! Certainly unchecked Utopianism breeds authoritarianism, but, on the other hand, unchecked emphasis on "what the citizen and dictator had in common" breeds the kind of mentality that, for example, lets rapists rape over and over again because he's such a nice guy, and you can't hold it against him after he's apologized, and, like, judge not. So it's weird that this article is so invested in pitching those nasty, smug, extremely straw-mannish people "who can say of themselves without irony, 'I am a good person'" against Auden's subtlety and humility.

Which is an error that Auden, incidentally, did not commit -- he had the sensitivity to know that Arcadianism, however appealing, was not precisely synonymous with good. One doesn't walk away from "Vespers," the excerpted poem about the Arcadian and the Utopian, thinking, "Yeah! Go Arcadians!"
posted by ostro at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2014


So it's weird that this article is so invested in pitching those nasty, smug, extremely straw-mannish people "who can say of themselves without irony, 'I am a good person'" against Auden's subtlety and humility.

The article is interested in why Auden would try to hide the good that he did, why he should be ashamed to be known for his goodness, ashamed at his ability to move a crowd. It's rather an unusual posture, and runs counter to much of the standard Western proverbs about good-doing, the Biblical injunction, for example, not to hide one's light under a bushel, but let it stand out a shining beacon to the world. It traces this impulse back to this aspect of his temperament, his Arcadianess. Which is in part a form of complacency. I don't think the article is constructed as an indictment of Utopianism -- and if it can in part be read so, it still stands as a pretty small critical voice against the general stentorian bellow of our culture's worship of Progress.

It is the Utopians (and the hedgehogs) who move the world, of course. But it's the Arcadians (and the foxes) who judge it better.
posted by Diablevert at 1:45 PM on March 5, 2014


I wouldn't say it was unjust, exactly -- they were pulling at the problem from different ends

I think it is unjust in that it makes no fair attempt to understand what Auden was trying to say--which is, after all, not all that hard to figure out. It would be fine if Orwell were to say "O.K., I know what you're trying to say, but here's why putting it that way is problematic," but he really just pretends Auden is being callously blithe, and that's not just bad reading but unethically uncharitable reading. Orwell is too smart not to know, at some level, that he's traducing the work so as to make his point.
posted by yoink at 4:06 PM on March 5, 2014


It's rather an unusual posture, and runs counter to much of the standard Western proverbs about good-doing, the Biblical injunction, for example, not to hide one's light under a bushel, but let it stand out a shining beacon to the world.

On the contrary, it's entirely in accordance with the teaching of Jesus: 'When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do .. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret' (Matthew 6:2-4).

Auden wasn't a saint, and wouldn't have appreciated the attempt to turn him into one, but he took his Christianity seriously. There's the story of him paying the fine for Dorothy Day in 1956, when she mistook him for a tramp:

When Day was leaving the house for a second court appearance, she noticed a group of men milling about, probably waiting to check the used-clothes bin. One of them came up and pressed a check into her hand. "Here is two-fifty," he said. Not until she was sitting on the subway did she discover that his "two-fifty" was a check for the $250 fine, signed by the poet W.H. Auden.

On this occasion Day rather spoiled the gesture by telling everyone about it, which must have embarrassed Auden, because when he referred to it in a later essay he claimed he'd only given the money out of a bad conscience: 'My conscious motive was my admiration for what the movement was doing to help the down-and-out, but unconsciously, I fear, I was trying to allay my conscience for not doing likewise.' Or as he wrote elsewhere: 'it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one'.
posted by verstegan at 1:12 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Those seem pretty weaselly words, but I suppose an American readership may think WWII started in 1941.

- Auden left for the U.S. in January 1939, nearly 8 months before war was declared

- It may have been fairly...uncomfortable to be a widely-regarded pillar of the Left in 1939;


Yes, his motives may very well have been perfectly respectable for all I know. But his departure and non-return certainly did significant damage to his reputation, in Britain at any rate. Not to acknowledge that fact at all in such a sentence (and in a piece about what an all-round good guy he was) looks a bit evasive.

- I guess I'm missing where the author's phrasing is somehow indicative of the mass stupidity of Americans.

Stupid, no: a little late, well what can I say?
posted by Segundus at 6:00 AM on March 6, 2014


Yes, his motives may very well have been perfectly respectable for all I know. But his departure and non-return certainly did significant damage to his reputation, in Britain at any rate. Not to acknowledge that fact at all in such a sentence (and in a piece about what an all-round good guy he was) looks a bit evasive.

Do you consider him a traitor, on some level? Is that why you feel it is a glaring omission, in a discussion of his ethics?
posted by Diablevert at 7:10 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


« Older "I wasn't born in the 40s so I have no idea what...   |   Pelican Cam Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments