T.S. Eliot thought of religion as “the still point in the turning world,” “the heart of light,” “the crowned knot of fire,” “the door we never opened”—something that remained inaccessible, perfect, and eternal, whether or not he or anyone else cared about it, something absolutely unlike the sordid transience of human life.
W.H. Auden thought of religion as derived from the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”—an obligation to other human beings despite all their imperfections and his own, and an obligation to the inescapable reality of this world, not a visionary, inaccessible world that might or might not exist somewhere else.
Auden’s Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought. It was also the aspect of his life and work that seems to have been the least understood by his readers and friends, partly because he sometimes talked about it in suspiciously frivolous terms, partly because he used Christian vocabulary in ways that, a few centuries earlier, might have attracted the Inquisitor’s attention.
His version of Christianity was more or less incomprehensible to anyone who thought religion was about formal institutions, supernatural beliefs, ancestral identities, moral prohibitions, doctrinal orthodoxies, sectarian arguments, religious emotions, spiritual aspirations, scriptural authority, or any other conventional aspect of personal or organized religion. He insisted that only adults can make a religious commitment, that the imposition of religion on children and adolescents was absurd. He had no interest in the megalomaniac sentimentality embodied in what he called the “Creeping Jesus” in Dostoyevsky’s later writings, where the Russian people’s love of Christ becomes an ecstatically satisfying excuse for military conquest.1 Auden also dismissed the popular notion of hell and damnation as “morally revolting and intellectually incredible because it is conceived of in terms of human criminal law, as a torture imposed upon the sinner against his will by an all-powerful God.”2 Some recent defenses of religion, in these pages and elsewhere, make much of an irreducible sense of mystery that religion responds to with feelings of awe. Auden thought such feelings were a distraction from religion.
Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment.
He made it clear that he understood perfectly well that any belief he might have in the personal God of the monotheist religions was a product of the anthropomorphic language in which human beings think. Late in life, after reading a Scientific American article about the microbes that live on the human skin, he wrote a poem that asked what religious beliefs such creatures might devise to make moral sense of their world—and made the unstated point that human theology was as much a projection from circumstances as the theology of microorganisms would be:
If you were religious folk,
how would your dramas justify
By what myths would your priests account
for the hurricanes that come
twice every twenty-four hours,
each time I dress or undress,
when, clinging to keratin rafts,
whole cities are swept away
to perish in space, or the Flood
that scalds to death when I bathe?
“To pray,” Auden wrote, “is to pay attention or, shall we say, to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—be it on a landscape, or a poem or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires in listening to what the other has to say to him, he is praying.” This may seem a denatured idea of prayer, but Auden took it seriously, and seems to have prayed in exactly this sense. The only value he found in “petitionary prayer”—prayer that asks for something—was that the act of expressing desires can reveal what they are, so that “we often discover that they are really wishes that two-and-two should make three or five, as when St. Augustine realized that he was praying: ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.’” Auden prayed to a God whom he knew he thought about in falsely human-centered terms, but only by doing so could he listen with any attention: “I can see…what leads [Paul] Tillich to speak of God as ‘Ground of Being,’ but if I try to pray: ‘O Thou Ground, have mercy upon us,’ I start to giggle.”
Auden’s passion for proper names in his poetry had a moral and theological point: like prayer, it was a form of attention. A proper name was a sign of personal uniqueness, and Auden used the word “miracle” to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of their own unpredictable individuality. “To give someone or something a Proper Name,” he wrote, “is to acknowledge it as having a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.” The value that is acknowledged through a proper name is not measurable in any objective sense; it exists in the eyes of the beholder. When human beings imagine a beholder who finds such value everywhere, they think in terms of God, or, as Auden wrote in another late poem, “the One…/Who numbers each particle/by its Proper Name”—a deity who knows the personal name of every electron in the universe, rather than thinking about them in statistical terms.3
Auden referred to himself as a “would-be Christian,” because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. “Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.”4 To become a Christian, as he understood it, did not require belief in an immortal soul separable from the body (a Platonic doctrine, he called this, not a Christian one) nor in the resurrection of Christ (which he only mentioned in order to remark that he could not make himself believe in it) nor in miracles that violated the laws of physics.
Both science and religion were at the heart of Auden’s family culture. His father was a physician, medical researcher, and amateur archaeologist who became professor of public health at Birmingham University and Birmingham’s first school medical officer; he seems to have been the first public official in Britain to use psychoanalytic methods, and he wrote the first medical account of autoerotic strangulation. Auden’s mother trained as a nurse after earning an honors degree from London University. Auden, who was born in 1907, impressed his schoolmates with arcane sexual knowledge gleaned from his father’s library.
The family was Anglo-Catholic, members of the most ritualistic and least Protestant wing of the Church of England. As a child, Auden experienced religion as a mysterious and exciting ritual in which he performed the role of boat-boy, the child who carries the incense for the priest to cast over the congregation, and at thirteen he went through a “period of ecclesiastical Schwärmerei,” an episode of religious enthusiasm that he later understood as an emotional response to puberty.
In 1922, when Auden was fifteen, one of his school friends was startled to realize in a casual conversation that Auden was religious, and changed the subject by asking him whether he wrote poetry. Auden had never done so, but he now recognized that his vocation was to be a poet. He later recorded 1922 as the year in which he “discovers that he has lost his faith.” For the adolescent Auden, poetry provided the magical excitement that he had once found in religion.
During the next fifteen years Auden explained the world to his friends and himself in terms of psychology and economics, which he more or less explicitly thought of as the triumphant successors to religion. He built an ever-changing intellectual framework for himself out of a jumbled storehouse of ideas derived from Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Marx, and a dozen lesser-known figures who served as temporary heroes, such as the anthropologist John Layard and the mystical polymath Gerald Heard. In 1934 he cited Lenin and T.E. Lawrence as “potent agents of freedom”; but two years later, in The Ascent of F6, he portrayed a lightly disguised T.E. Lawrence as a self-destructive megalomaniac, and he began revising his earlier poems to remove any positive words about communism.
Meanwhile, as Arthur Kirsch describes in his lucid and judicious study, Auden and Christianity, Auden was still using a Christian vocabulary at a time when he thought he had finished with Christianity forever. Christopher Isherwood, who collaborated with him on three plays, wrote at the time about Auden’s reliance on the tone and form of the liturgy:
When we collaborate, I have to keep a sharp eye on him—or down flop the characters on their knees…. If Auden had his way, he would turn every play into a cross between grand opera and high mass.
In apparently secular poems, he kept hidden what was often their religious starting-point. His ominous ballad “O what is that sound that so thrills the ear” (1932) seems to be set in eighteenth-century England with its “scarlet soldiers.” But as he recalled later, the stimulus for the poem was a painting of the Agony in the Garden, where the soldiers in the background appear harmless, and “it is only because one has read the Gospel story, that one knows that, in fact, they are coming to arrest Jesus.”5
Auden returned to the Anglican Communion in 1940 after seven years of thought about the moral content of Christianity, about what it means to love—or not to love—one’s neighbor as oneself. The process seems to have begun in 1933 with an experience that he later described as “not overtly Christian,” although the memory of it, he said, was “one of the most crucial” factors that helped to bring him back to the Anglican Church years afterward. He called it a “vision of Agape,” that is, of shared unerotic love. The place was the Downs School, where Auden was a teacher:
One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.
"Dostoevsky in Siberia," The Griffin, November 1956, p. 13.↩
"Introduction" to Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove (Meridian, 1956), p. viii.↩
"Epithalamium (for Peter Mudford and Rita Auden, May 15th, 1965)." This updates Psalm 147: "He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names." The other power the poem attributes to this hypothetical deity is the ability to see relations invisible to human beings between disparate things: he is the "One for whom/all enantiomorphs are superposable" (enantiomorphs are mirror-image three-dimensional shapes, such as a pair of gloves, that can be made to coincide point for point, i.e., superposed, only in four-dimensional space).↩
Prose, Volume II, 1939–1948 (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 250.↩
From a 1971 lecture, "Phantasy and Reality in Poetry," edited by Katherine Bucknell in W.H. Auden: "In Solitude, for Company": W.H. Auden After 1940, edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 193.↩
“Dostoevsky in Siberia,” The Griffin, November 1956, p. 13.↩
“Introduction” to Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove (Meridian, 1956), p. viii.↩
“Epithalamium (for Peter Mudford and Rita Auden, May 15th, 1965).” This updates Psalm 147: “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.” The other power the poem attributes to this hypothetical deity is the ability to see relations invisible to human beings between disparate things: he is the “One for whom/all enantiomorphs are superposable” (enantiomorphs are mirror-image three-dimensional shapes, such as a pair of gloves, that can be made to coincide point for point, i.e., superposed, only in four-dimensional space).↩
Prose, Volume II, 1939–1948 (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 250.↩
From a 1971 lecture, “Phantasy and Reality in Poetry,” edited by Katherine Bucknell in W.H. Auden: “In Solitude, for Company”: W.H. Auden After 1940, edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 193.↩