The Sea and the Mirror is the most brilliant and unsettling of the four long poems Auden composed during his furiously industrious first decade in America. It was begun in October of 1942 in the wake of a period of extreme turbulence and distress; and although the sequence is modestly subtitled “A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” the poems—and prose—Auden puts into the mouths of the characters Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and co. reflect with exquisite subtlety and intelligence many recent, and longstanding, inner conflicts and guilts.
The Sea and the Mirror is an intriguing mixture of the theatrical and the poetic. It is set in the aftermath of a performance of The Tempest, and, after a preface delivered by the stage manager to the critics, is spoken entirely by the characters of the play. It begins with Prospero still on the island, but packing his bags and preparing to give up his magic. “All these heavy books,” he reflects, “are no use to me any more.” With the help of his servant-spirit Ariel, and a whole panoply of spells, he has gained revenge on his brother Antonio, who a decade or so earlier had stolen from him the dukedom of Milan; he has thwarted a plot by Caliban (the original inhabitant of the island), the fool Trinculo, and the bibulous butler, Stephano, to “batter his skull” as he sleeps and then ravish his daughter, Miranda; and he has overseen, indeed orchestrated, Miranda’s falling in love with Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, the King of Naples.
Further, under his direction Ariel has prevented an attempt by Antonio and Sebastian, Alonso’s younger brother, to kill Alonso and usurp the kingdom of Naples too. Although Prospero triumphs in every respect, the poem’s ending is somewhat muted, even elegiac. The success of his schemes means he will be losing his daughter in marriage to Ferdinand, and, as a reward for performing his master’s bidding in “every article,” he must release Ariel from his faithful servitude. He will be leaving the island, the site of his power and wizardry, for Milan, where, he tells us, “every third thought shall be my grave.”
In the second section of The Sea and the Mirror, which takes place on the deck of the ship sailing toward Italy, most of the play’s other characters are given monologues in which they reflect on the meaning of their experiences on the island, and assess the way they have changed, or at least come to understand themselves better, as a result of their encounter with Prospero’s magic. The pedantic, Polonius-like old councilor, Gonzalo, upbraids himself for his failure to trust the wondrous and irrational, and convicts himself of “doubt and insufficient love”; Stephano, figured by Auden as a Falstaffian glutton as well as a drunkard, broods on the origins of his bodily cravings; and the jesting Trinculo acknowledges the source of his jokes to be a very Audenesque existential anxiety: “A terror …