For several months after his 1939 immigration to the United States, W.H. Auden (1907-1973) remained enchanted with all the old dogmas—psychology, Marxism, and liberal humanism—that had shaped so much of his early work. As a poet, he continued to assert his faith in man’s ability to save civilization from ruin. Composed like all mankind “Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair,” he continued to “Show an affirming flame.”[1]

Yet two months after writing these affirming lines, Auden’s faith in humanity was dealt a devastating blow from which it never recovered. In November 1939, he and Christopher Isherwood, with whom he had immigrated, went to a cinema in Yorkville, the largely German-speaking district of Manhattan where they had recently taken up residence. The film they saw was Sieg im Poland, a Nazi account of Hitler’s conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on the screen, Auden was astonished to hear a number of onlookers yell “Kill them!”[2] At this point in his writing career, he began to search for an absolute around which to organize his poetry.

Unlike most poets of his generation, who continued to center their own work around positivistic assumptions, Auden sought a system of poetics centered on eternal questions and ultimate concerns, one which denied man’s innate goodness while resigning itself to the intimacy and assurance of God’s grace. Deeply influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, the theology of Charles Williams, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Auden finally found his system in Christianity, whose concept of original sin provided his moral imagination with an explanation for anxiety in the modern age.

Kierkegaard’s theories on the problem of inauthentic existence resonate throughout much of Auden’s later work and serve as paradigms for “New Year Letter” and The Age of Anxiety.[3] The three parts of the “Letter” can indeed be seen as topical correspondences to Kierkegaard’s three categories of graduated existence. Accordingly, Part I of the poem corresponds to the first of these categories, “aesthetic” existence, at which stage one lives for the enjoyment of the present moment (much as Auden did during his amoral days as an undergraduate). Part II corresponds to Kierkegaard’s second category, “ethical” existence, at which stage one moves from pure pleasure to moral indignation (as Auden tried to do in the early 1930s when he became interested in politics and social injustice). Finally, Part III corresponds to the highest of these categories, the “religious” existence, at which stage one, upon realizing the falseness of human righteousness, must either fall into a state of despair, or place his trust in the hands of God (as Auden does implicitly at the end of the “Letter” itself).

Of the two longer poems, The Age of Anxiety illustrates most clearly Kierkegaard’s use of original sin as a philosophical concept for representing human experience. Each of the characters in this psychological study of modern alienation tries to escape (what Auden describes in a review of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or) his “present anxiety over himself in relation to his past and his parents,” his “present anxiety over himself in relation to his future and his neighbors,” and his “present anxiety over himself in relation to eternity and God.”[4] The anxiety from which they try to escape is tantamount to the very same psychological guilt that Kierkegaard attributes to living inauthentically in a perpetual state of depravity.[5]

In making his own diagnosis of guilt in the modern age, Williams developed a theology of “co-inherence.” “Whatever ages of time lay between us and Adam,” he explains, “yet we were in him and we were he; more, we sinned in him and his guilt is in us.” Humanity being held together by a “web of existence,” ages cannot, according to Williams, “separate one from another,” for they are ineluctably co-inhered, each reaching “back to the beginning as it stretches on to the end.” “To refuse the ancient heritage of guilt,” says Williams in words which Auden echoes in For the Time Being and in The Sea and the Mirror, “is to cut ourselves off from mankind.”[6]

Eliot fully accepted this ancient heritage, but refused, as Auden wrote in commemoration of the poet’s sixtieth birthday, to despair:

When things began to happen to our favorite spot,
a key missing, a library bust defaced,
then on the tennis-court one morning,
outrageous, the bloody corpse, and always,
blank day after day, the unheard-of drought, it was you
who, not speechless from shock but finding the right
language for thirst and fear, did much to
prevent panic. It is the crime that
counts, you will say. We know, but would gratefully add
to-day as we wait for the Law to take its course
(and which of us shall escape whipping?)
that your sixty years have not been wasted.[7]

Still, Eliot’s early poems, such as “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” reveal an incipient preoccupation with solipsism and the fragmentation of self. With “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, “Mr. Eliot,” writes Kathleen Raine, “gave hell back to us.”[8]

While implicit in Eliot’s early work, original sin as a recurring theme becomes increasingly more explicit in the metaphors of such later poems as “East Coker”:

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.[9]

Like Auden, Eliot argues in his later poems for a renewal of the spiritual life through the discipline of the emotions, a renewal which Dante called Vita Nuova. “My last short poem ‘Ash Wednesday,'” Eliot writes, “is really a first attempt at a sketchy application of the philosophy of the Vita Nuova to modern life.” His later poems problematize the human personality and adamantly insist on the necessity for individuals to immerse themselves in something greater and more meaningful than the void of solipsism. “I am one,” Eliot once wrote, “whom this sense of the void tends to drive towards asceticism or sensuality, and only Christianity helps to reconcile me to life, which is otherwise disgusting.”[10]

Auden’s own spiritual renewal began in 1941, the year he returned to the Anglican Church (through the Episcopal equivalent in America), and the same year that he published “Criticism in a Mass Society,” a decisive manifesto in which he declared:

The statement, ‘Man is a fallen creature with a natural bias to do evil,’ and the statement, ‘Men are good by nature and made bad by society,’ are both presuppositions, but it is not an academic question to which one we give assent. If, as I do, you assent to the first, your art and politics will be very different from what they will be if you assent, like Rousseau or Whitman, to the second.

He further declared that modern writers, being fallen creatures, must hold certain values to be “absolute” (while accepting the knowledge of such values to be always imperfect) and should scrutinize the “fashionable” as much as the “avantgarde.” [11]

By the same token, modern critics who write in an open, industrialized society (which Auden distinguishes from the closed, theological civilization preceding the Renaissance) must write from an acceptance of human fallibility. What the critic ought to say is this: “Remember that like you and everyone else I am a weak fallible creature who often makes false judgments… and therefore you must not take everything I say as gospel.” Moreover, critics should promise to do their utmost to “overcome” their pride, and those who read them must try to do the same.[12] Overcoming their pride is part and parcel of writing with a sense of original sin, and to write with a sense of original sin is, according to Auden, to achieve four virtues in criticism.

First, critics who assume that “absolute values” exist while admitting that their knowledge of them “is always imperfect,” will “judge” a work of literature by “the degree to which it ‘transcends'” the writer’s “personal and historical limitations,” but they will not expect “such transcendence ever to be complete,” either in the writer or in themselves. Critics who judge accordingly will “equip” themselves with “historical” and “social” knowledge so as to overcome their own “prejudices” and “to help the reader to see, through all the apparent differences in the technique and subject matter of great works, their underlying unity.” Moreover, critics of this sensibility will be wary of all that is “partisan,” “naturalistic,” and “personal,” and of all such distinctions as “Traditional” or “Modern.”[13]

Second, supposing “the unity of truth,” critics who judge with a sense of original sin will recognize the “interdependence” of ethics, politics, science, aesthetics and will therefore do their best to achieve “as all-round a culture as possible.” Supposing the reciprocal relationship between these fields, critics will, in evaluating a piece of literature, draw upon them all “without being dominated by any one of them.” They will assume neither the “puritanical attitude of the bourgeois censor of morals” nor the “nihilist attitude of the bohemian” who denies or ignores “the effect of values” on works of literature and “the moral influence which they do in fact exert.” Critics writing with a sense of original sin will thus find slogans like “Art for Art’s Sake” or “Art for Polities’ Sake” equally objectionable.[14]

Third, critics who subscribe to the doctrine of original sin will neither believe in their own infallibility, nor will they encourage others to believe them infallible. Consequently, they will be “as chary of utterly condemning a book as of acclaiming it a masterpiece.” Such critics will serve neither the “masses” by declaring that “what is popular must be good” nor the “highbrow” by “assuring them that what is avantgarde must be superior.” What is more, they will conceive of literature, as they do life, as being, not a matter of “self-expression,” but one of “self-discipline.” In the spirit of Henry James, they will consider “‘Clumsy life at her stupid work'” as “something to be mastered and controlled.” They will see artistic liberty and personality as “dependent upon the voluntary acceptance of limitations,” for these alone are “strong enough to test the genuine intensity of the original creative impulse.” Hence, responsible critics will be as skeptical of the “formless” and the “expansive” as they are of the “unfinished” and the “casual.”[15]

Finally, those who choose to be responsible critics will see their role of influence as a matter of chance, as something which they have undeservedly inherited. They will continually remind themselves that, though one should always strive to help others, the power to do so remains always beyond one’s reach. Because one can never “guarantee the effect upon others of the acts he does” in attempting to help them, “all he knows for certain is that, since his actions are never perfect, he must always run the risk of doing others harm.” For this reason, the ultimate aim of those critics who hope to contribute something of value to humanity must be to persuade their readers to get along without them, to accept that “the gifts of the spirit are never to be had at second hand.”[16]

While clearly articulating Auden’s later views on moral criticism, “Criticism in a Mass Society” also represents one of his first polemics against the politics of amelioration which he thought had failed his generation. According to his revised reading of the years entre deux guerres, such failures were due in part to liberal policies which refused to acknowledge the impossibility of successful social democracy without an unequivocal belief in man’s bias toward evil. Societies not based upon this belief are inclined to pacifistic policies which, as Auden argued elsewhere, blaspheme “by denying original sin and pretending that perfection can be acquired” through progressive political means. By 1941, Auden was convinced that “if man does not consciously walk in fear of the Lord, then his unconscious sees to it that he has something else, airplanes or secret police, to walk in fear of.”[17]

This conviction grew out of personal experience. In 1937, four years before he published “Criticism in a Mass Society,” and at the peak of his idealism, Auden spent several months in Spain during the Civil War, where he witnessed first-hand the cruelty of both the Nationalists and the Republicans, as well as the political corruption on both sides of the battle line. Later, at the time he was writing the article, Hitler began mercilessly conquering western Europe. With the advent of the Second World War, everything that Auden had only intuited about man’s evil bias was substantiated.

By the time “Criticism in a Mass Society” reached the press, Auden had begun to conceive of original sin as something more than a mere poetic possibility; it had become a decisive explanation for the flaw inherent in all forms of humanitarianism. Thus, he declares, “Man is not, as the romantics imagined, good by nature.” What is more, individuals are equal “not in their capacities and virtues” but rather in their inclination toward sin and evil. For this reason, no person, group, or class, “however superior in intellect or character to the rest,” has an absolute right “to impose its view of the good upon them.” A society ought to be governed by democratic principles, and its citizens deserve “a right to make their own mistakes and to suffer for them, because no man is free from error.” In other words, individuals must construct a society around the interests of the majority and boldly make decisions fully aware of the possibility of error. Unless society has the “courage” and “faith” to do so, says Auden, nothing can save it from a regrettable dictatorship.[18]

As Auden argued in a 1949 interview, the salvation of any society is ultimately dependent upon the moral choices made by its citizens. When asked in the same interview if he would rather have lived in an earlier time when human knowledge was comparatively limited and there was no “police force” and “no plumbing,” Auden said that he would definitely not. “If one thinks in terms of happiness or love,” he explained, “human behavior certainly has not improved through the ages.” Yet, he concedes, science and technology have undeniably contributed to the quality and meaning of life. He adds, however, that technology is capable of creating both good and bad, and with each new invention comes a moral choice as to how, or even if, one intends to use what science offers.[19]

In illustrating this point, Auden drew upon the myth of the Fall. The quintessential first invention, he explains, is the apple in the garden of Eden: the embodiment of divine knowledge. Adam and Eve, possessed of free will, were faced with the moral choice of either eating or rejecting this fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Their choice to eat of the tree began time and consequently lost them their innocence. Their moral dilemma, says Auden, is continuously resurrected in the modern world as individuals are bombarded with invention and innovation.[20] What one finds in Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, therefore, if not an historical account of human origins, is nonetheless a myth which, as Auden puts it, both “explains” and “conditions” history. One must acknowledge the “poetic truth” of original sin, he adds, for human beings still behave much like the couple in the garden, continuously denying their creaturehood and desiring to be as gods.[21]

It was around what he called the “poetic truth” of original sin that Auden organized many of his most memorable last poems. In “Memorial for the City,” Auden traces this truth from its pagan manifestations in Homer’s world to its post-Auschwitz revelations in the twentieth century. Here Auden argues that, while pagans and Christians are equal in their bias toward sin and evil, Christians are comparatively unique in their abiding sense of God’s grace. As Christians bury a loved one, Auden explains, they know “without knowing” that “there is [a] reason” for what they bear, that their “hurt is not a desertion,” that they are to “pity” neither themselves nor their “city.” Regardless of whom the secret police’s “searchlights catch,” no matter what their “loudspeakers blare,” Christians, comforted by their faith in God’s grace, know “not to despair.”[22]

As Auden argues at the end of the poem, the faithful Adam of the modern city ironically finds redemption in his human weakness. “Let Our Weakness speak,” Auden exclaims. Thus invoked, Weakness commences upon a celebration of the fallen human condition for which he himself is responsible. It is a celebration because, as Weakness points out from the start, “Without me Adam would have fallen irrevocably with Lucifer” and “would never have been able to cry O felix culpa.”[23] Weakness takes full responsibility for each and every re-enactment of the fortunate fall. It was, after all, he who encouraged Prometheus to steal fire from heaven. It was he who heard the music of Orpheus. It was to him that Christ uttered “His Fifth Word from the cross,” a word which became “a stumbling block for stoics.”[24] It was he who prevented the marriage of Faustus with Helen (“I know a ghost when I see one”). It was he who lost “patience” with Hamlet, but “forgave Don Quixote all for his admission in the cart.” It was he who shared in the sin of the Ancient Mariner and “warned Captain Ahab to accept happiness.” And in the modern “Metropolis,” it is also he who threatens “resentments and no peace” for those who insist on denying their creaturehood, for Weakness shall in the end “rise again” to “hear” them “judged.”[25]

Auden continues his commentary on the modern metropolis in “City Without Walls.” This poem is so titled because the city it depicts stands in sharp contrast to the cities portrayed in Byzantine painting. Unlike the modern metropolis, the ordered city of ancient times was protected from the “Unbounded” chaos “beyond the Pale” of its walls. Existing beyond the pale were those “fantastic forms,” those “unpoliced spaces” where “dragons dwelt and demons roamed,” spaces “colonized” by “ex-worldlings,” “sophists and sodomites.” In the modern city without walls, however, these fantastic forms are now “visual facts in the foreground.”

In the unbounded modern city, all exist as fearful “hermits” who of necessity live in “numbered caves in enormous jails” and work in factories in which the functional “Hobbesian Man is mass-produced.” Fraternity here has been reduced to nightly “cell-meetings” lit by “electric lamps” at which like-minded individuals, “their tongues tattooed by the tribal jargon / of the vice or business that brothers them,” may exchange idle words borne out of discontent. What esprit de corps there is in the meaner streets is to be found late at night in “mean cafes” where in stale air “belly-talkers,” “weedy-looking” and “work-shy,” spew until dawn “some ruthless creed” to “a dozen dupes.”

The city without walls is the modern megalopolis of fallen men and women whose Edenic parents were cast out of paradise for disobeying God’s law. Here “Eve” ventures forth daily to supermarkets (“her foods to pluck”) while “Adam,” disinclined to labor by the sweat of his brow, “hunts an easy dollar.” Denying their fallen natures as spiritual beings dependent upon something greater than themselves, both, “unperspiring at eventide,” eat their bread “in boredom of spirit.” The once-holy weekend still sets them free, but the freedom it offers is “just time out,” “idiorhythmic,” an unholy time “when no one cares what his neighbor does.”

In this unholy wasteland of the modern Adam and Eve, communion is replaced by “newsprint” and “network.” Though what they read in the papers or see on the television may be “vulgar rubbish,” and what they hear on the radio, “witless noise,” these diversions are nonetheless just what are needed most, for they shield the couple from the formidable “glare of Nothing,” the “pernicious foe” of modern times (“For what to Nothing shall nobodies answer”). On their stages of popular culture, “super-physiques” still predominate and are frequently photographed, but “ordinary flesh” is no longer wanted (“engines do better what biceps did”).

The modern Adam and Eve, Auden argues prophetically near the end of the poem, are the inhabitants of a “Gadgeted Age,” an age in which technology is at odds with humanity:

Quite soon computers may expel from the world
all but the intelligent few,
the egos they leisure be left to dig
value and virtue from an invisible realm
of hobbies, sex, consumption….

It is not at all surprising, adds Auden, if in such an age many adopt cancer “as the only offered career” worthwhile, if psychiatric wards are full of “gents who believe they are Jesus Christ” or guilty of some “Unforgivable Sin,” if “few now applaud a play that ends / with warmth and pardon the word to all,” or if, moreover, the average Joe finds salvation in a “ju-ju General Mo.” Though “Megalopolis” stands “monied” and “immune” to reproach, happy are they, Auden concludes, who hope for better, for what lies in store for the fallen city may “well be worse.”[26]

From Auden’s point of view, things did indeed get worse in August of 1969, when Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind. In reaction to this technological triumph, Auden wrote “Moon Landing,” a poem of light but mordant verse. Here he portrays the landing as a “huge phallic triumph” which would never have seemed worthwhile to women, a triumph which only men could have envisioned because they naturally “like huddling in gangs” and being aware of the “exact time.” While Auden admits that the deed is truly remarkable, and that “It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up,” he nevertheless suspects the “motives” that “primed it” are yet “somewhat less than menschlich.” While able to appreciate the landing’s gesture to progress, Auden, who became increasingly more reactionary in his later years, laments the end of yet another era (“But what does it period?”) and questions the spirit of progress for the sake of progress (“What does it osse?”).

Yet the landing on the moon, he concedes, was inevitable. From the moment Adam and Eve defied the law of God, it was just a matter of time before humans defied the gravitational limits of their earthly domain. Thus, if the moderns are any different from their ancestors, they are so, says Auden, only in their “lack of decorum.” While Homer’s heroes were indeed no braver than NASA’s trio in space, they were nonetheless more fortunate: “Hector,” for one, “was excused the insult of having / his valor covered by television.” Was the landing “Worth going to see”? Auden asks. Perhaps, he admits. “Worth seeing?” he asks. “Mneh! I once rode through a desert / and was not charmed.”

The scene that Auden prefers to a landing on the moon consists of a freshly watered garden, far from the “blatherers” about the “New,” where on reverential August mornings “[he] can count the morning / glories, where to die has meaning, / and no engine can shift [his] perspective.” In contrast to the Moon lately profaned, the Moon that looms in Auden’s imagination (“Unsmudged, thank God”) still “queens the Heavens,” her “Old Man” still possessing the power to frighten and provoke the moral consciousness. Superstition being in Auden’s mind far superior to secular irreverence for the mysteries of life, all one can pray for, he opines in the last stanza, is that, while the “apparatniks” continue making “the usual squalid mess of History,” the “artists,” “chefs,” and “saints” will “still appear to blithe it.”[27]

Auden chose instead to mock it. In “The Sabbath,” for instance, he derisively revisits the Genesis story from the point of view of the animals. Surveying God’s earth on the seventh day of creation, they warily sniff the air, thinking and hoping that man has departed. “Herbivore,” “parasite,” and “predator” alike inspect the land, while “Migrants” fly “fast and far,” but the only traces to be found of those whom God created on the “Sixth” are “Beaches covered with tar,” and “Ruins and metallic rubbish in plenty.” That man has seemingly not survived to celebrate the Sabbath comes as no surprise to the beasts of the land and fowl of the air, for he “had never really smelled” like a creature who would survive, possessing “No grace” or “address of faculty like those / Born on the First Five.”

As the beasts begin to see it, the Sixth Day was but an “unnecessary interim,” and, human “impudence” being gone, they find themselves on the Seventh Day seemingly back “at last” to “a natural economy.” Yet just as soon as they begin to enjoy their “beautiful,” “happy” and “perfectly pointless” existence, a “rifle’s ringing crack” splits “their Arcadia wide open” and cuts “their Sabbath nonsense short.” “For whom,” Auden interjects, “did they think they had been created?” As the poem ends, man is back, “More bloody-minded than they [the animals] remembered, / More godlike than they thought.”[28]

Similarly, in “Address to the Beasts,” Auden praises the animals for always being around to remind him of his fallen nature. For human beings, who lapse “into disarray” at the moment of birth, who “seldom” know precisely what they are “up to” (and, “as a rule,” do not “want to”), what “a joy” it is “to know,” even when they cannot hear them, that the animals are near. The animals, on the other hand, to whom “all scents are sacred” save the smell of man and those he manufactures, rarely find men “worth looking at” until they “come too close.” What is more, the animals, in contradistinction to men, “promptly” and “ably” carry out “Nature’s policies” and are never “lured,” like humans, into “misconduct” except by some unfortunate “chance imprinting.” Born with exceptional good manners, the beasts “wag no snobbish elbows,” refrain from leering, from looking down their “nostrils” or poking them “into another / creature’s business.” Their own “habitations” stand as “cosy and private” abodes, not as “pretentious temples” arrogantly thwarting God’s landscape.

Of course, as Auden playfully admits in the final stanzas of the poem, the beasts are compelled to take lives and are yet to become literate. But, he adds, they only take lives “to keep their own” and have never been known to “kill for applause.” And though the beasts have never felt the need to become literate, their “oral cultures” have nevertheless “inspired” poets throughout the ages to write “dulce verses,” and, while “unconscious of God,” their “Sung Eucharists” remain yet more “hallowed” than those that men and women sing. Unlike human beings, the beasts are ruled by “Common Sense,” and even if they cannot produce a “genius like Mozart,” neither can they torment the earth with “brilliant little sillies like Hegel” or “clever nasties like Hobbes.”[29]

Until his death in 1973, Auden continued in like fashion to resist the secular optimism of his age. His spirit of resistance grew out of an ineluctable belief in original sin, a belief which painfully challenged his own politically liberal assumptions about the nature and destiny of man. “No doctrine is more unwelcome to the modern liberal,” he once admitted, “than the doctrine of original sin.”[30] Though he may have found the doctrine at times unwelcome, Auden nevertheless remained convinced that the first step toward the realization of a universal good society would have to be a universal acceptance of the Fall.

Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 2002).

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Notes 

1. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London, 1977), 247.

2. W. H. Auden, “In the Autumn of the Age of Anxiety,” New York Times Magazine, 8 Aug. 1971, late ed., sec. 6: 10+..2.

3. For an in-depth study of Kierkegaard’s influence on these two poems, see Edward Callan, “Auden’s New Year Letter: A New Style of Architecture,” Renascence, Vol. 16 (1963), 13-19; and Justin Replogle, Auden’s Poetry (Seattle, 1969), 58-61, 78-81.

4. W.H. Auden, review of Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, by Soren Kierkegaard, New Republic, 15 May 1944, 683.

5. Compare the subject of the poem to Kierkegaard’s underlying argument, in Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (1843; London, 1985), 45-144; also The Sickness Unto Death, 1849, trans. Alastair Hannay (London, 1989), 43-67, 107-165.

6. Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (London, 1939), 175-176.

7. W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York, 1976), 440.

8. Kathleen Raine, “The Poet of Our Time,” T.S. Eliot: A Symposium, ed. Richard March and Tambimuttu (London, 1948), 79.

9. T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York, 1963), 187-188.

10. Quoted in B. A. Harries, “The Rare Contact: A Correspondence between T.S. Eliot and P.E. More,” Theology, 75 (1972), 141.

11. W.H. Auden, “Criticism in a Mass Society,” The Intent of the Critic, ed. Donald A. Stauffer (Princeton, 1941), 137-142.

12. Ibid., 142.

13. Ibid., 144-145.

14. Ibid., 145.

15. Ibid., 145-146.

16. Ibid., 146.

17. W.H. Auden, “Tract for the Times,” review of Christianity and Power Politics, by Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nation, 4 Jan. 1941, 25.

18. Auden, “Criticism and a Mass Society,” 144-147. For further discussion of his political opinions and their relation to the problem of sin in the world, see Parts II and IV of Auden’s The Prolific and the Devourer (Hopewell, 1981). Part II reveals in detail his early understanding of sin and evil. In Part IV, Auden speaks about liberal-humanism, the optimism of which he abandoned for Christianity shortly after Hitler invaded Poland. Part IV concludes with a question and answer section revealing many of Auden’s views on war, including his pacifist opinions, which he recanted only a few years after conveying them.

19. Conversations with Auden, by Howard Griffin, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco, 1981), 1.

20. Auden’s notion of the Fall being forever re-enacted in the modern world exemplifies what his close friend Stephen Spender describes as the fantasy of “a second fall of man” which runs through much of the criticism and literature written after the First World War. This fantasy, Spender argues, is attributable to “the introduction of scientific utilitarian values and modes of thinking into the world of personal choice between good and evil.” The result of this introduction, has been that values “cease to be personal and become identified with usefulness or destructiveness of social and material things.” See The Struggle of the Modern (Berkeley, 1963), 26.

21. Conversations with Auden, 1.

22. Auden, Collected Poems, 451.

23. Ibid., 453.

24. According to Saint Matthew, around the ninth hour of the crucifixion, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (King James Version 27:46) In translation, therefore, Christ’s fifth word, uttered in a brief moment of despair, is “why,” a question which aptly underscores His ability to suffer as a human being.

25. Auden, Collected Poems, 453.

26. Ibid., 562-564.

27. Ibid., 632-633. The poem’s concluding statement represents a variation on the argument advanced in The Prolific and the Devourer. The Prolific, says Auden, are those who produce: the farmer, the skilled worker, the cook, the doctor, the teacher, the athlete, and the artist. “Are there really any other occupations fit for human beings?” Auden asks. The Devourers, on the other hand, are the political types who depend on what is already produced for their existence: judges, policemen, critics, and bureaucrats. “These,” Auden hyperbolizes, “are the real Lower Orders, the low, sly lives, whom no decent person should receive in his house” (18).

28. Auden, Collected Poems, 507.

29. Ibid., 660-661.

30. W.H. Auden, “The Means of Grace,” review of The Nature and Destiny of Man, by Reinhold Niebuhr, The New Republic, 2 June 1941, 766.

The featured image is a 1956 press photo of W. H. Auden, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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