Auden’s Ode to Ecumenism | Georgia L. Gilholy

Born in York in 1907, and educated at Oxford, W. H. Auden was already a celebrated poet by his mid-twenties. In the midst of personal success and impending war in Europe, Auden emigrated to the United States in early 1939. From 1947 onwards he spent his winters in New York and summered in Europe. First, he chose Ischia- Capri’s larger and less quaint sister island- as his summer abode. I wonder if he ever bumped into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the beach? From 1958 to his death there in 1973 he settled on Kirchstetten, Lower Austria as his summer residence. Just as Auden’s personal geography resembled an unsettled, circular trajectory- in contrast with his rather linear professional progression from his undergraduate days onwards- so too did his personal and political philosophy. 

The subversive energy of his youthful circle at Oxford had ushered him into the transition from precocious teenager to radical often experienced by attendees of elite universities, and was no doubt spurred on by the urgency to rebel against creeping fascism and war. Auden’s middle England upbringing naturally meant he was raised alongside his parents’ Anglicanism, which according to Auden himself, firmly leaned toward the High Church Anglo-Catholic persuasion. Yet by his teenage years, faith had become an irrelevance consigned to Christmas, Easter, and the ignorant. His poem “Spain 1937” praised “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder” in pursuit of a secular, socialist revolution. The young Auden had remade himself. God was unnecessary. Smells and bells were mere vanities. 

However, Auden’s brief spell on the ground in war-torn Spain affected him deeply. His social views grew more complex as he encountered political realities that were more ambiguous and troubling than he had imagined. In Barcelona, he was horrified to discover that supporters of the Republican cause had closed or damaged countless historic churches. He later discarded “Spain 1937” from his collected works, and his politics became evermore laced with doubt than revolutionary zeal. By 1940 Auden was regularly attending church again. Between 1949 and 1955 he produced what many have deemed his greatest work: Horae Canonicae. The title, of course, refers to to the canonical hours of the Christian Church, as do the titles of the seven poems constituting the series: “Prime”, “Terce”, “Sext”, “Nones”, “Vespers”, “Compline”, and “Lauds”.

Although Auden’s poetry is often admired for its characteristic indirectness, Whitsunday in Kirchstetten (1966) does do what it says on the tin. In no more than a page and a half, Auden recounts his presence at a Roman Catholic mass in celebration of Pentecost in his choice of Austrian village, many decades after he had reconciled with the Christianity of his childhood. The Feast of Pentecost, always observed on the seventh Sunday after Easter, is commonly referred to as Whitsunday in the British Isles due to the term being an old contraction of “White Sunday”, attested in “the Holy Ghost, whom thou didst send on Whit-sunday” in Old English homilies

Dedicated to H. A. Reinhold, a German Catholic priest in Auden’s acquaintance, the poem is prefaced with the line [Grace dances. I would pipe. Dance ye all], from the Acts of John. He describes how: [although [he is] obedient to Canterbury, / I shall be well gruss-gotted, asked to contribute / to Caritas …] For those of us who decided against GCSE German – or like me, studied the subject but have since forgotten nearly all of it- grüß Gott is a greeting distinct to the native dialect of Southern Germany and Austria. If anything might be called alien to the twenty-first-century city dweller, it would be a succession of friendly greetings from strangers- nevermind from those of opposing sects, which after all, Catholicism was to Auden the Anglican. Although this window into a more in-person past must still ring familiar with plenty of villagers and church-goers.

He continues […whether the world has improved / is doubtful, but we believe it could]. The linear biblical vision of hope is assumed here. There is the fact of a future to be arrived at that is better than now, and we can be a part of it. Auden does not need to delude himself that his world is a grand improvement, he is certain that there is an absolute good to be headed towards no matter the Sturm und Drang (see, there’s one bit of the German language I remember) of the era we happen to inhabit, no matter how drab and hopeless it may seem. With [the Holy Ghost does not abhor a golfer’s jargon], Auden envisions a God at peace with both the ordinary and the particular.  

…As crows fly,
ninety kilometers from here our habits end,
where mine-field and watch-tower say NO EXIT
from peace-loving Crimtartary, except for crows
and agents of peace: from Loipersbach
to the Behring Sea not a living stockbroker

Auden was known to take his guests in Kirchstetten to visit the barbed wire and watchtowers of the Iron Curtain, not more than 40km away from his cosy village. Here he makes a mockery of the idea that such an elaborate and cruel network of barriers would be needed to keep the inhabitants of “peace-loving Crimtartary” to the Bering sea from leaving. After all, there are no pesky agents of depravity like stockbrokers left? So it can’t be all bad? You thought wrong, says Auden.

… church attendance is frowned upon
like visiting brothels (but the chess and physics
are still the same).

Auden is making clear what fares of the faith over that mine-field and watch-tower. Policy and attitude to morality are different. Religious faith is designated as subversive and degenerate against the enlightened despotism of communism. But, as Auden hints, the raw logic of chess and physics cannot be so easily banished in favour of the political machine. As Hannah Arendt’s “Between Past & Future” discussed in the same decade as this poem, solitary thought could never have the power to restore the knowledge of millennia of documents which support “truths” supported by centuries of philosophical and historical record, such as those relating to culture and religion. These kind of truths are easily susceptible to destruction and distortion by the ruthless political authorities both her and Auden witnessed first-hand. I hear history books are slightly more flammable than the logic of chess and mathematics that Arendt reminds us “might be derived in solitude”.

We shall bury you
and dance at the wake, say her chiefs: that, says Reason,
is unlikely. But to most people
I’m the wrong color: it could be the looters’ turn
for latrine-duty and the flogging-block
my kin who trousered Africa, carried our smell
to germless poles

The first line intentionally channels Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous 1956 address to the Western Bloc at Moscow’s Polish embassy, in which he said “About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” Auden denies that “the chiefs” will succeed in this endeavour, “reason,” he says, is on another side. Yet he is not elevating his side of the Iron Curtain beyond all criticism. He acknowledges the “looters” and alludes to the cruelties of slavery. He implies the diseases inflicted by imperial outposts on native populations. Bodily cruelty is apparently universal. No wonder Auden refers even to this congregation the “torturers” of the Second Adam.

Auden acknowledges the limitations of his first language in delineating philosophical terms [there is no Queen’s English / in any context for geist or Esprit:] Not a question mark in sight, Auden powerfully hints that there is something we all ought to share regardless of our grasp of great thinkers or languages: [what do I know, except what everyone knows- if there when Grace dances, I should dance] His apparent doubt of what can be certain about theology and philosophy- although we know his faith was sincere- might be characteristic of what we might call Anglican eclectism. Auden is an outsider in both faith and nationality. He has inserted himself into the mass of a Church of which he is not a member, and yet he is at ease. He is experiencing the profound ‘grace’ of the mass, which heavily resembles his own- with added deferences to the Pope- and it does not appear to shake his confidence about what “everyone knows”.

And now, in the words of Anne Brontë, whose wisdom is- in my opinion, scandalously- absent from Auden’s Commonplace Book, I think I have said sufficient.

Photo Credit.

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