W. H. Auden - who, like T. S. Eliot, was pre-eminent in 20th century English-language poetry - remained at or near the center of Western cultural life from the 1920’s until his death in the early 1970’s. With his gaze focused unflinchingly on matters great and small during those years, Auden marked that epoch as his own as surely as any artist of his times, in the process revealing himself as a precocious, dedicated and apt pupil of Dante and Shakespeare, who, argued Eliot, were the co-emperors of Western literature. Also like Eliot, with whom he developed a strong literary relationship, Auden was a wide-ranging critic of literature, society and religion. Finally, the two were devout Anglicans whose faith waxed even as that of their co-religionists seemed to wane during the course of the century.
Yet these similarities are deceptivethey were very different poets, for example; Eliot was often experimental, while Auden displayed an almost uncanny mastery of traditional forms. And it would be futile to attempt to argue that the two were the same kind of Christianor the same kind of men. Self-deprecating wit played little part in Eliot’s social arsenal, though it is humorous that he carefully presented himself to the world costumed as a respectable English businessman, which he in fact was when he worked for Lloyd’s. He was not a mirthful man, though he permitted himself more than a measure of whimsy in the writing of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Auden, on the other hand, at times impoverished, said he was one of those persons who generally look like an unmade beda generous, endearing admission. Auden understood his wit as a blessing, one of the many he counted in hard times.
Appropriately, Auden’s generosity is a constant theme in an edifying new book by the critic and scholar Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity. This is a clear, unpedantic examination of the poet’s Christian faith, as evidenced in Auden’s poems, prose, letters and lectures, as well as in the opinions of those who knew him, including friends and lovers and such luminaries as philosopher Hannah Arendt and Protestant theologians Reinhold and Ursula Neibuhr. Auden was both a great poet and critic, writes Kirsch, but he should also be remembered, and would have wished to be remembered, as a man who sought to lead a Christian life. Kirsch’s book should ensure that we so remember Auden.
It is a large task, but Kirsch, emeritus professor of English at the University of Virginia, succeeds in detailing the complex nature of this particular poet’s faith and doubt. Auden, who for a time lost the faith in which he was raised, came back to Christianity while still a young man, though he never understood himself to be, precisely, a Christian. He believed that he was becoming a Christian, that that was the point: trying to be a Christian in this life. Nor did he (or anybody else, for that matter) entertain the idea that he was a saint (seeing his own homosexual practices as sinful, he was fond of quoting his beloved St. Augustine: Lord grant me celibacybut not yet). Auden studied Christianity and the Church throughout his life and was a lifelong foe of Manichaeism and Gnosticism. He insisted that the body was holy:
The various kerygmas, of Blake, of Lawrence, of Freud, of Marx, to which, along with most middle-class intellectuals of my generation, I paid attention between twenty and thirty, had one thing in common. They were all Christian heresies; that is to say, one cannot imagine their coming into existence except in a civilization which claimed to be based, religiously, on belief that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and that, in consequence, matter, the natural order, is real and redeemable, not a shadowy appearance or the cause of good and evil, and historical time is real and significant, not meaningless or an endless series of cycles.
Kirsch returns often to these distinctions, which he says animated Auden’s thought and work throughout his career, and sensibly organizes his book chronologically from Auden’s early years onward. Growing up in an unusually devout, though not in the least repressive or gloomy Anglo-Catholic household, Auden’s love was for the communal ritual worship; sermons he avoided throughout his life: I must confess that in my life I have very seldom heard a sermon from which I derived any real spiritual benefit. Most of them told me that I should love God and my neighbour more than I do, but that I already knew. Besides Auden’s early love of liturgy, Kirsch notes Auden considered himself blessed with a voice and a musical sense, which deepened Auden’s appreciation of worship, and lucky to be born in a period when every educated person was expected to know the Bible thoroughly.
Kirsch’s account of Auden’s subsequent loss of faith and his discovery of poetry, or of the poet in himself, and the slow renewal of his faith is fascinating, interwoven as it is with Auden’s embrace of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, his volunteering to fight in that war, his disillusioned return, the growing acclaim for his poetryincluding eventual support from the already famous T. S. Eliot, now established as an ex-patriot in Englandand his decision to emigrate to the United States on the eve of World War II. Along the way, Kirsch explodes several myths that have grown up about Auden, including the now-fashionable belief that he was a pacifist.
This period, and what follows in a life that got interesting fast and stayed that way, is heady stuff. In less skilled hands, the story of Auden’s spiritual concerns, of the very progress of the poet’s soul, could easily have resulted in a confusing, bloated tome. Kirsch has given us a clear, concise, well-focused study that belongs on the shelves of lovers of Auden’s poetry.