Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Vale of silly sheep

But wishes are not horses, this Annus is not mirabilis; Day breaks upon the world we know Of war and wastefulness and woe... The New Year brings an earth afraid, Democracy a ready-made And noisy tradesman's slogan, and The poor betrayed into the hand Of lackeys with ideas, and truth
Whipped by their elders out of youth, The peaceful fainting in their tracks With martyrs' tombstones on their backs, And culture on all fours to greet A butch and criminal elite, While in the vale of silly sheep Rheumatic old patricians weep. (From New Year Letter)

THIS poem is dated January 1, 1940, when Europe had been at war for four months. The war spread to engulf the world and lasted five more years; it caused a drastic reorientation of national boundaries and a radical change in the strategies of confrontation.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73), writing this, was concerned not so much with practical politics as with the general predicament of humanity. He saw the tragedy in terms of conflicts of the spirit rather than of national aspirations, and stemming from the inaction of ordinary people rather than the actions of statesmen.
It is a poem which is worth reading on such an anniversary as this. How different is New Year's Day, 2000 from New Year's Day, 1940? True, we are not engulfed in a global war of armaments and soldiers. But there are a dozen small conflicts which may blow up at any time. Have our attitudes changed in these six decades? What are we celebrating?

Much of the scientific progress of this century has gone into making our lives more difficult, our politics more fraught and our pragmatism more unethical. Do we have more leisure than our grandfathers did? On the contrary, we die of stress-related heart attacks in our thirties. Are wars less probable? No, and terrorism has become an easy way out for madmen. We have begun to unlock the secrets of the genes, but are fewer people hungry or diseased thereby? How, when the secrets are patented by corporations whose use of them actually threatens small farmers, while Homo americanus or Western Man wonders if it would be "right" to clone human beings.
What are we celebrating, when culturally and morally we seem to have regressed even since 1940? An entire country burned with napalm; entire populations subjected to viruses or radiation; and now, with gobalisation, an entire world waiting to be taken over by "lackeys with ideas" - a megalomaniac who can peddle software better than anyone else, or another who wants to own all the newspapers and TV channels. And in our own country, we see how the attempted imposition of one "homogenous" culture on all citizens can lead to barbarity.
This crisis of faith is not going to be taken seriously, Y2K or no Y2K. But what is astonishing about "New Year letter" is that Auden not only saw the crisis of his time more clearly than most, he expressed it in words that have lasted. Even now these words sound true; for all I know, they may have expressed the angst of Asoka's age.

The two passages here are taken from different sections of the poem and, even within them, there are cuts. But if you are reading these lines for the first time, I think you will find that they still flow. The first passage uses a geographical metaphor for humanity's confusion about where to go. Another poem by Auden which does this (in a more light-hearted way), "The Labyrinth", was discussed in this column in June 1997.
There is nothing light-hearted here. The last line, "Shudders her future into stone", presents the whole idea of "Progress" more graphically - and geographically - than pages of prose could. Geographical, too, is the beginning of the next passage, whose first three lines are a vivid picture of sunrise over Homo Americanus.
What Western man wakes up to is also concisely conveyed. Of course we'd all prefer to be good, but somehow it's easier to go along... (Earlier in the poem occur these lines: "All too easily we blame/the politicians for our shame.") The last three lines of the stanza define an ideal state, which is immediately confounded by the definition of reality in the next: a reality we are all too familiar with and needs no explication, except to say annus mirabilis is Latin for "a year of wonders", and the last two lines are an acute description of people who dream of a vanished glorious age while doing nothing about this one.

How I wish I could quote the marvellous prayer ("O Unicorn among the cedars,/To whom no magic charm can lead us") which follows these lines and ends the poem. There is so much in "New Year Letter" which applies to our condition. But the whole poem runs into 50 pages and almost 10,000 words; if the less than 300 I have excerpted here strike you with their relevance, all of us will be happy.
Auden has been a greater influence on young poets than anyone else this century. His vision of his times, and of a doubtful future, was exceptionally clear, as this poem demonstrates. Also, he was highly skilled in all forms of verse, and was always elegant without being facile.
I have not chosen this poem for the new year to depress you, but rather to show that our condition is independent of material progress; it depends rather on our spiritual advancement (which need have nothing to do with religion). And to cheer you, for words spoken out of honesty and clarity of sight, free of prejudice, outlive us and make sense to our children's children. "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
VIJAY NAMBISAN The Hindu: What does the signpost say? Saturday, January 08, 2000

Augustinian Auden: The Influence of Augustine of Hippo on W. H. Auden
Stephen J. Schuler, Ph.D.
Mentor: Richard Rankin Russell, Ph.D.
It is widely acknowledged that W. H. Auden became a Christian in about 1940,
but relatively little critical attention has been paid to Auden.s theology, much less to the
particular theological sources of Auden.s faith. Auden read widely in theology, and one
of his earliest and most important theological influences on his poetry and prose is Saint
Augustine of Hippo. This dissertation explains the Augustinian origin of several crucial
but often misunderstood features of Auden.s work. They are, briefly, the nature of evil as
privation of good; the affirmation of all existence, and especially the physical world and
the human body, as intrinsically good; the difficult aspiration to the fusion of eros and
agape in the concept of Christian charity; and the status of poetry as subject to both
aesthetic and moral criteria. Auden had already been attracted to similar ideas in
Lawrence, Blake, Freud, and Marx, but those thinkers. common insistence on the
importance of physical existence took on new significance with Auden.s acceptance of
the Incarnation as an historical reality. For both Auden and Augustine, the Incarnation
was proof that the physical world is redeemable. Auden recognized that if neither the
physical world nor the human body are intrinsically evil, then the physical desires of the
body, such as eros, the self-interested survival instinct, cannot in themselves be
intrinsically evil. The conflict between eros and agape, or altruistic love, is not a
Manichean struggle of darkness against light, but a struggle for appropriate placement in
a hierarchy of values, and Auden derived several ideas about Christian charity from
Augustine. Augustine's influence was largely conscious on Auden.s part, though it was
often indirect as well. Auden absorbed important Augustinian ideas through modern
sources such as Charles Williams, Charles Norris Cochrane, and Denis de Rougemont,
although he was himself an observant and incisive reader of Augustine.s major works,
especially the Confessions. This dissertation demonstrates that the works and ideas of
Augustine are a deep and significant influence on Auden.s prose and poetry, and
especially on his long poems.

No comments:

Post a Comment