Monday, October 10, 2016

W.H. Auden*

W.H. Auden (1907—1973) is one of the major poetic voices of the twentieth century. Born in York, England, he studied English at Oxford University. His first collection, Poems, was privately printed in 1928. A much more influential collection of the same name was published with the help of T.S. Eliot in 1930. His many honours include the 1948 Pulitzer Prize, The Bollingen Prize (1953) and the National Book Award (1956). Joseph Brodsky once said that Auden had "the greatest mind of the twentieth century".

Even through his years of professed atheism, Auden remained interested in Christianity. In 1940 he returned to the Anglican Church. Biographer Humphrey Carpenter said of Auden's transformation, "The last stage in his conversion had simply been a quiet and gradual decision to accept Christianity as a true premise. The experience had been undramatic, even rather dry."

Friday's Child

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenbürg, April 9, 1945)

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
"Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent."
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

*This is the second Kingdom Poets post about W.H. Auden: first post

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection, Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. Lewis, is available from Wipf & Stock as is his earlier award-winning collection, Poiema.