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.1 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 shakes my tree,/A flock of words fly out,/Whereat a laughter shakes/The busy and devout.” The third, and by far the longest, section of The Sea and the Mirror consists of an extraordinary speech by Caliban to the audience, written in a convoluted pastiche of the late Henry James, in which Shakespeare’s “savage and deformed slave” expounds a dauntingly complex set of aesthetic, philosophical, and theological dilemmas. The sequence concludes with a beautiful lyric spoken by Ariel to Caliban, with an echo from the prompter.
Auden suggested in one of a number of discussions of The Tempest, which are included in this sumptuous, comprehensively annotated new edition of the poem, that the play is principally “concerned with a wrong done, repentance, penance and reconciliation.” So is The Sea and the Mirror, but in both cases the reconciliation is partial and ambivalent. Neither of The Tempest‘s two chief villains, Antonio and Sebastian, appears particularly repentant at the play’s conclusion.
Auden interpreted their refusal to recant and reform as illustrative of Shakespeare’s overall skepticism about the power of art—a skepticism Auden wholeheartedly endorsed. In the spring of 1944, shortly after completing the poem, he declared in a letter to the Shakespeare scholar Theodore Spencer of Harvard that The Sea and the Mirror was his “Ars Poetica in the same way I believe The Tempest to be Shakespeare’s…. I am attempting,” he continued, “something which in a way is absurd, to show in a work of art, the limitations of art.”
Auden’s insistence on the “limitations” of art is central to his attempts to redefine himself as a poet in the period following his emigration to America in 1939. Like Eliot and Pound, he tended to blame the problems bedeviling twentieth-century poetry—and so-ciety—on the upheavals of Romanticism, which ruptured the artist’s relationship to his or her audience. “Until the great Industrial Revolution,” he observed in his “Letter to Lord Byron” of 1937,
The artist had to earn his livelihood:
However much he hated the intrusion
Of patron’s taste or public’s fickle mood,
He had to please or go without his food;
He had to keep his technique to himself
Or find no joint upon his larder shelf.
The “dark satanic mills,” however, destroyed the poet’s dependence on patronage, and
A new class of creative artist set up
On whom the pressure of demand was let up:
He sang and painted and drew dividends,
But lost responsibilities and friends.
The passing of the “bad old hack tradition” initially licensed “fireworks, fun, and games of every kind,” but in the twentieth century the party has turned very sour:
…many are in tears:
Some have retired to bed and locked the door;
And some swing madly from the chandeliers;
Some have passed out entirely in the rears;
Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few
Are trying hard to think of something new.
For Auden that “something new” involved reconfiguring the poet’s relationship to society, and renouncing the verbal fireworks and fun that shot him to fame in London and helped to determine the tone of British poetry of the Thirties.
The spoof element in his dire predictions of impending conflict is fundamental to the charm and power of Auden’s early poetry, and it reached its apotheosis in The Orators of 1932, which fused public school prankishness with the idioms and trappings of a political revolutionary movement to create a mythical world of camaraderie, hero worship, subterfuge, and betrayal. It features a band of “initiates” who plan a very English revolution based around practical jokes: their subversive, proto-Monty-Python tactics include introducing gin into the lemonade served at missionary whist-drives, a devastating use of stink-bombs, removing plugs and paper from public lavatories, and inciting girl guides to mob vicars at the climax of their sermons.
As Auden’s executor and critic-in-chief Edward Mendelson has pointed out, The Sea and the Mirror itself mirrors the form and structure of The Orators. Both are written in a mixture of poetry and prose, consist of a prologue, three central parts—or chapters as he called them in The Sea and the Mirror—and an epilogue. Both deploy a range of voices that pull the reader in contrary directions, and are written in a dazzling variety of verse forms. Both are concerned with the quest for, and the use and abuse of, power—political, poetic, and shamanistic (one of the sources for The Orators‘ “The Journal of an Airman” was his friend and mentor John Layard’s description of initiation rituals practiced by sorcerers in New Guinea). And finally, of all Auden’s long poems, The Orators and The Sea and the Mirror seem to me the two that engage most provocatively and searchingly with the work that cast a mesmeric, Prospero-like spell over its rivals and “flamed amazement”—not least through its brilliant use of quotations from The Tempest—for all poets of Auden’s generation: Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, The Orators‘ mixture of slapstick and prophetic incanta-tion, social comedy, and neurotic self-diagnosis often teeters on the verge of Eliot pastiche:
For those determined to suffer; for those who believe they can control the weather,
O Jack Straw from your Castle hear us.
For those capable of levitation; for those who have days of collapse; for those whose impulses are negative,
Fair Maid of Kent, hear us.
The Orators is subtitled “An English Study,” and Englishness was one of the “tendencies” Auden determined to extirpate, if he could, by moving to America in 1939, and applying for US citizenship the following year. America, he wrote to his friend E.R. Dodds in January of 1940, is “a terrifying place,” but at least honest in its acceptance that the modern condition is essentially one of isolation and deracination. While the great modern experimenters, Eliot and Pound, often reveal themselves in thrall to an almost feudal vision of lost agrarian bliss (“it is necessary,” Eliot sternly commanded in an article in The Criterion of 1938, “that the greater part of the population should be settled in the country”), Auden consciously determined to avoid all temptations to belong: “At least I know what I am trying to do,” he wrote to Dodds, “which is to live deliberately without roots. I would put it like this. America may break one completely, but the best of which one is capable is more likely to be drawn out of one here than anywhere else.”
Auden’s early American poems, such as his elegies for Yeats and Freud, express a deep skepticism about nationalism. Yeats is chastised for his megalomaniac belief that his poetry could influence the course of Irish history (“For poetry makes nothing happen”), and Freud celebrated for the way psychoanalysis, figured by Auden as a “technique of unsettlement,” threatens the myths of tribal rootedness and racial uniqueness on which the “ancient cultures of conceit” are founded. Abstractions (the Good Place, the Just City) begin to replace the proper names (Rookhope, Cashwell, Greenhearth) that pepper Auden’s early work, and that he somehow infused with an aura of the legendary. But it was this ability to transform such names and landscapes into sites of enchantment that Auden sought to renounce. The Kierkegaardian existentialism Auden evolved in the wake of his return to Anglicanism in 1940 required him to figure himself as “sailing alone, out over seventy thousand fathoms,” to quote Prospero quoting Kierkegaard in Chapter 1 of The Sea and the Mirror, as he ponders the implications of renouncing his magic, which he glosses as “the power to enchant/That comes from disillusion.”
Auden, as The Sea and the Mirror makes clear, believed that disillusionment had to be faced, for ethical reasons, on its own terms, unmediated by art’s enchantments, and that art could only regain its integrity by returning to its proper, subordinate place in the hierarchy of meanings. Art’s complete failure to deliver on its impossible promises allows us by antithesis, or so Auden argues through Caliban in Chapter 3 of the poem, a mystic glimpse into the divine truth—“the real Word,” “the Wholly Other Life,” “the restored relation.” But such moments, we must understand, only follow a resolute acceptance of our perilous, defenseless, naked condition, “swaying out on the ultimate wind-whipped cornice that overhangs the unabiding void.”
The others are "New Year Letter" (1941), "For the Time Being" (1945), and "The Age of Anxiety" (1947).↩
The others are “New Year Letter” (1941), “For the Time Being” (1945), and “The Age of Anxiety” (1947).↩