W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine


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, powerpolitical, 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.”


Clearly this state of humility was the result not just of Auden’s immersion in the writings of, as well as Kierkegaard, Saint Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Catholic novelist Charles Williams, but also of the despair into which he had been plunged by what he called “l’affaire C,” his discovery, that is, during the two years of his “marriage” to Chester Kallman, that Mr. Right had already conducted a long affair in secret, and had never taken seriously the vows of fidelity Auden had pressed upon him. This revelation temporarily unhinged him. “I was forced to know in person,” he later revealed, “what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers, in both the Greek and the Christian sense, stripped of self-control and self-respect, behaving like a ham actor in a Strindberg play.”2 Here he is referring in particular to a night in July of 1941, when, after a prolonged and bitter row, Kallman woke to find Auden’s “large, thick fingers” around his throat. The sestina Auden gives The Tempest’s would-be assassin, Sebastian, is full of complex self-recriminations and guilty relief that seems to reflect his recognition of his own potential for violence:

…it is day;
Nothing has happened; we are all alive:
I am Sebastian, wicked still, my proof
Of mercy that I wake without a crown.

Auden’s understanding of what went wrong in his relationship with Kallman underlies many of the themes and arguments developed in The Sea and the Mirror. “It’s OK to say that Ariel is Chester,” he wrote to Isherwood in April of 1944, “but Chester is also Caliban, ‘das lebendigste’ [what is most alive], ie Ariel is Caliban seen in the mirror.” The German phrase is borrowed from Hölderlin’s “Sokrates und Alkibiades,” a poem to which Auden often referred, and which is quoted in full in a lecture on Shakespeare’s Sonnets he gave at the New School in 1946. “Holy Socrates,” his friend demands, in Michael Hamburger’s translation,

why always with deference
Do you treat this young man?
Don’t you know greater things?
Why so lovingly, raptly,
As on gods do you gaze on him?’
Who the deepest has thought loves what is most alive,
Wide experience may well turn to what’s best in youth,
And the wise in the end will
Often bow to the beautiful.

If Hölderlin’s lyric expressed for Auden his most positive interpretation of the humiliations heaped on his head by his beloved, Shakespeare’s Sonnets offered him less uplifting perspectives on the failure of his “marriage.” “The story of the sonnets,” he observed bitterly in his introduction to the Signet edition, “seems to me to be the story of an agonized struggle by Shakespeare to preserve the glory of the vision he had been granted in a relationship, lasting at least three years, with a person who seemed intent by his actions upon covering the vision with dirt.”

But Auden also read the sequence of the sonnets more self-critically, as embodying a disastrous fusion of the myths of Pygmalion and Frankenstein that aptly described his early relations with Chester, who was only eighteen when they met. In the late 1940s he remarked to the poet Howard Griffin that in the Sonnets Shakespeare

desperately tries to do that which is forbidden: to create a human being…. Evidently he has selected someone at a stage of possibility. He wants to make an image so the person will not be a dream but rather someone he knows as he knows his own interest. He wishes the other to have a free will yet his free will is to be the same as Shakespeare’s. Of course great anxiety and bad behavior result when the poet’s will is crossed as it is bound to be.3

Kallman certainly crossed the poet’s will—“What a shame, Wystan,” he’d remark when pressed to leave a party early, “that God invented free will”—and the resulting anxiety suffuses much of Auden’s poetry of the early Forties. The lyrics he composed just after what he called “The Crisis” are full of self-reproach and pleas for forgiveness. In a trilogy of sonnets called “The Lesson,” for instance, he records three dreams about Chester which all “rebuke” Auden for his Pygmalion-like egotism, while in “Canzone” he broods guiltily on “the hot rampageous horses of [his] will.”


Auden’s determination in The Sea and the Mirror to expose the “limitations of art” undoubtedly derived much of its emotional urgency from his agonized struggles during this period to accept the limitations the loss of his erotic relationship with Kallman imposed on his life; as late as 1947, five years after they’d stopped sleeping together, he perhaps only half-jokingly discussed with Alan Ansen the possibility of obtaining from a witch doctor in Dahomey a spell which would compel Chester to “love him faithfully and exclusively again.”4

The muted, world-weary, vulnerable cadences of Prospero’s address to Ariel as he sets him free in Chapter 1 of The Sea and the Mirror initiate a new tone in Auden’s poetry, that of prosy resignation:

  …In all, things have turned out better
  Than I once expected or ever deserved;
I am glad that I did not recover my dukedom till
  I do not want it; I am glad that Miranda
No longer pays me any attention; I am glad I have freed you,
  So at last I can really believe I shall die.

In his various essays and lectures on The Tempest Auden is outspokenly critical of Shakespeare’s mage. “One must admire Prospero because of his talents and his strength,” he declared in a 1954 essay on the play excerpted in this new edition, “one cannot possibly like him. He has the coldness of someone who has come to the conclusion that human nature is not worth much, that human relations are, at their best, pretty sorry affairs.” This is hardly a just assessment of Prospero; it does, however, accurately reflect Auden’s ever-gathering distrust of the Prospero-ish gifts with which he had himself been showered, and his dislike of the drive toward an authoritative, enchanting rhetoric so exuberantly enacted in his own early work. Whereas in The Waste Land Eliot’s allusions to The Tempest work to unify the narratives of aesthetic and spiritual transfiguration (“Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!”), Auden’s Prospero can only conceive the truth, can only “really believe [he] shall die” by abandoning art: “For under your influence,” he tells Ariel, “death is inconceivable”: “the way of truth,” he discovers, is

  …a way of silence where affectionate chat
Is but a robbers’ ambush and even good music
  In shocking taste.

For all his antipathy to Prospero, as the letter to Isherwood which associates Chester with both Ariel and Caliban makes clear, Auden, although only thirty-five when he began work on the poem, suggests numerous analogies between his own situation and that of the death-haunted Prospero of the play’s conclusion. His rueful meditation builds to a plangently restrained relinquishing of Ariel (“How I shall miss you. Enjoy your element. Good-bye”), but is interspersed with lyrics that lament less temperately Chester’s defection:

Inform my hot heart straight away
  Its treasure loves another,
But turn to neutral topics then,
Such as the pictures in this room,
  Religion or the Weather;
Pure scholarship in Where and When,
  How Often and With Whom,
Is not for Passion that must play
  The Jolly Elder Brother.

Canceled passages from Auden’s manuscripts included in the notes of this new edition of the poem strengthen our sense of Prospero as Auden’s prematurely assumed alter ego. His alienation from all around him was initially signaled, like that of the Airman in The Orators, by an early addiction to onanism (“the magical rites of spring in the locked bathroom”), and his deviation from the straight and narrow of the heterosexual norm implied in his assessment of the trials facing the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda in their forthcoming union: “I probably overestimate these difficulties,” he reflects in a draft, “For natures less indirect than mine.” This “indirectness” connects Prospero to all the “crooked” or “backward” lovers of Auden’s early poetry, and his allusion, in “Letter to Lord Byron,” to Shakespeare’s play with the trope of straightness in Sonnet CXXI:

‘No, I am that I am, and those that level
  At my abuses reckon up their own.
I may be straight though they, themselves, are bevel.’
  So Shakespeare said, but Shakespeare must have known.
  I daren’t say that except when I’m alone,
Must hear in silence till I turn my toes up,
‘It’s such a pity Wystan never grows up.’5

The stanza wittily fences with the condemnations, such as F.R. Leavis’s, of Auden’s “immaturity,” and suggests these attacks were in fact coded ways of denouncing his homosexuality—an inclination shared, to some degree anyway, by Shakespeare, who “must have known.” On the other hand, in an introduction to The Sonnets written in 1964, Auden was himself somewhat sarcastic about attempts to figure “our Top Bard as a patron saint of the Homintern,” and this ambivalence is perhaps reflected in the division between the stately ruminations on art and life of the main body of Prospero’s speech, and the gay slang and obscure personal references that emerge in the lyrics that punctuate it:

Tell then of witty angels who
Come only to the beasts,
Of Heirs Apparent who prefer
Low dives to formal feasts;
For shameless Insecurity
Prays for a boot to lick,
And many a sore bottom finds
A sorer one to kick.

Auden later decided that the whole of the Prospero section should be considered part of the “published record of l’affaire C.”

“It never occurs to [Prospero],” Auden observed in the 1954 essay, “that he, too, might have erred and be in need of pardon.” His own Prospero convicts himself of tempting Antonio to treason, and, more seriously, of corrupting Caliban, whom he describes as his “impervious disgrace,” the one mistake he cannot set right. Again vanity, the urge to shape and control another’s life in the manner of Pygmalion or Frankenstein or of the worshiper of the young man in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is to blame. By educating Caliban, Auden suggests, Prospero has succumbed to the temptation to believe his art is all-powerful, with disastrous results:

We did it, Ariel, between us; you found on me a wish
  For absolute devotion; result—his wreck
That sprawls in the weeds and will not be repaired:
  My dignity discouraged by a pupil’s curse,
I shall go knowing and incompetent into my grave.

In The Sea and the Mirror, however, such failures, or rather the characters’ recognition of them, are redemptive.

In Later Auden (1999) Mendelson goes so far as to say that the poem’s main argument is “that success isolates because, in requiring another person’s failure, it is criminal.” This theme he relates to a miscarriage Auden’s mother suffered between the birth of his older brother, John, and himself, a loss, Auden later confessed in a letter to a friend in 1944, for which “I cannot be sorry, because, if she hadn’t, perhaps I shouldn’t exist.” It is impossible to prove or disprove such a reading, of course, but certainly the caustic Antonio, the principle of pure negativity in The Sea and the Mirror, shadows the various triumphs of his brother Prospero by insisting on all that cannot be transformed and cannot be made to participate in the joyful dance of forgiveness and reconciliation:

Your all is partial, Prospero;
  My will is all my own:
Your need to love shall never know
Me: I am I, Antonio,
  By choice myself alone.

Each of the poems allotted to the supporting cast in Chapter 2 of The Sea and the Mirror is exposed at its conclusion to the cynical Antonio’s refusal to abandon his solitude. On one level Auden is brooding on the implications of Shakespeare’s willingness to allow outcasts such as Antonio, or Malvolio in Twelfth Night or Jaques in As You Like It, to remain outside the spell of the play’s transformations. These outcasts’ refusals to participate illustrate most directly what Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” the way his characters often seem to exist beyond the reach of the plays’ imperatives or meanings, “swelling into reality” (Keats again) on their own terms. Like the Romantics, Auden greatly envied Shakespeare’s freedom to create this sense of autonomy, but accepted that with the revolution of romanticism, and its obsession with the inner life, it was a freedom effectively lost to poetry. His Antonio may enjoy celebrating his recalcitrance in gloriously sinister choric interludes, but acknowledges at the conclusion of his own monologue, written in terza rima, that he and Prospero are in a kind of symbiotic relationship:

As I exist so you shall be denied,
Forced to remain our melancholy mentor,
The grown-up man, the adult in his pride,
Never have time to curl up in the centre
Time turns on when completely reconciled,
Never become and therefore never enter
The green occluded pasture as a child.

Since, as Caliban explains at length in his address to the audience in Chapter 3, the nostalgic longing to return to the “green kingdom” of childhood is one the seeker of grace must resist at all costs, the vigilance Antonio’s wickedness makes necessary is generally good for the conscience: the threat of evil he embodies keeps Prospero morally alert. In this respect, Antonio plays as crucial a part as any in the existential comedy, where only motley is worn.


The poems of Chapter 2 display the full range of Auden’s virtuosity: the metaphysical complexities of the sonnet of Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, the King of Naples, which Auden described to Isherwood as “fucking in completely abstract words”:

Inherit me, my cause, as I would cause you now
With mine your sudden joy, two wonders as one vow
Pre-empting all, here, there, for ever long ago

are played off against Miranda’s naive, rapturous villanelle, with its alternating end lines:

My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely,…
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

Dualities, antitheses of this kind abound. The sea and the desert are contrasted in Alonso’s moving meditation on the difficulties that will confront his son Ferdinand when he ascends the throne of Naples, and will have to balance on the tightrope of “the Way of Justice,” “Where no prince is safe for one instant/Unless he trust his embarrassment.” It is “embarrassment,” to use Alonso’s term, the self-consciousness induced by Prospero’s magic, that forces the guilty to attempt a diagnosis of, if not a cure for, the particular “great anxiety” which caused each one’s “bad behavior.”

Auden also, however, appeals at moments to the mysterious operations of grace, theatrically represented by music, that rescue the characters and plots in Shakespearean romance; like Prospero, Alonso is ready to welcome death, having witnessed a miracle he compares to that with which A Winter’s Tale concludes:

…rejoicing in a new love,
A new peace, having heard the solemn
Music strike and seen the statue move
To forgive our illusion.

The illusions the characters have nurtured are more harshly examined still in the third section. Perhaps mindful of the shade of Browning, whose “Caliban Upon Setebos” is written in a thickly textured, organically guttural idiom, Auden decided, after months of what he called “prospecting,” that a style based on the most elaborately artificial diction of the late James would serve best to stress the gap between the unvarnished, inarticulate nature the pre-Prospero Caliban symbolizes and the distortions inherent in all representations of the natural in the mirror of art. Caliban is variously glossed as the id, Eros, “the Prick” (this in letters to Isherwood and Theodore Spencer), as “unrectored chaos,” as all that art is in opposition to and cannot accommodate: “how could you,” he has Caliban imagining a disgruntled audience complaining to Shakespeare after the play,

be guilty of the unpardonable treachery of bringing along the one creature [i.e., Caliban], as you above all men must have known, whom she [i.e., the Muse] cannot and will not under any circumstances stand, the solitary exception she is not at any hour of the day or night at home to, the unique case that her attendant spirits have absolute instructions never, neither at the front door nor at the back, to admit?6

More alarming still to the playgoers is the thought that Shakespeare may have forgotten that poetry makes nothing happen and unleashed Ariel into the world of Caliban, the world we live in:

For if the intrusion of the real has disconcerted and incommoded the poetic, that is a mere bagatelle compared to the damage which the poetic would inflict if it ever succeeded in intruding upon the real. We want no Ariel here, breaking down our picket fences in the name of fraternity, seducing our wives in the name of romance, and robbing us of our sacred pecuniary deposits in the name of justice. Where is Ariel? What have you done with Him? For we won’t, we daren’t leave until you give us a satisfactory answer.

Auden was inordinately proud of Caliban’s monologue, and often claimed it was the best thing he’d ever written. Certainly it is one of his funniest performances, one of the greatest expressions of his talent for mimicry. He also felt it was “more me than the sections written in my own style,” and that this was precisely the “paradox” he was aiming for. In this case at least, Auden’s urge for renunciation resulted in an expansion, rather than a constriction, of his natural gifts.

The brilliance of the prose, which is impossible to illustrate by quotation since the sentences go on for so long and the aesthetic arguments developed are so complex, almost disguises the sleight of hand whereby Caliban claims to resolve the theological and metaphysical conundrums, the debates over grace and free will, at the heart of The Sea and the Mirror. In the end he makes use of a strategy not dissimilar to Prospero’s address to the audience in the epilogue to The Tempest:

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As Prospero’s appeal for grace depends on insisting, through theatrical metaphor, on his helplessness, so Caliban finds in the image of “the greatest grandest opera rendered by a very provincial touring company indeed” a means of representing the gap between this world and the hereafter:

Here we really stand, down stage with red faces and no applause; no effect, however simple, no piece of business, however unimportant, came off; there was not a single aspect of our whole production, not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness, for which a kind word could, however patronisingly, be said.

It is at this moment of utter disillusion and disenchantment that we may hear “the real Word which is our only raison d’être.” Art’s abject failure to imitate life convincingly can be understood as mimicking the gap between this world and

that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf of which our contrived fissures of mirror and proscenium arch—we understand them at last—are feebly figurative signs, so that all our meanings are reversed and it is precisely in its negative image of Judgement that we can envisage Mercy; it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.


The overarching, unspoken context of The Sea and the Mirror was the Second World War. Auden had been pilloried in the British press for fleeing England in a desperate hour, and had been classified 4F (unfit for service) on account of his homosexuality by the US draft board. An earlier version of Caliban’s speech, in verse, opens with the warning that “an unidentified plane is reported/Approaching the city,” and instructs the audience to sit in the dark and wait for developments.

The poem’s preoccupation with death and guilt was no doubt partly a consequence also of the death of Auden’s mother in the summer of 1941, shortly after The Crisis. As in The Waste Land, the invocation of the peace which passeth understanding—“Shantih shantih shantih,” or in Caliban’s phrase, “the full bloom of the unbothered state”—probably ends up convincing only those who happen to share the poets’ religious views, though in both cases unbelievers can be affected by the emotional turmoil from which only religion offers an escape.

The Sea and the Mirror concludes with a postscript in the form of an aria—perhaps in tribute to the opera-loving Kallman—in which Auden posits a tentative reconciliation of body and spirit, united by their shared fascination for “drab mortality.” While Eliot moved through the sacramental vision of “What the Thunder Said” to a poetry—and a personal life—largely determined by his spiritual quest, Auden turned away from rigorous pursuit of the via negativa outlined in the closing paragraphs of Caliban’s speech. In a sense the postscript renounces renunciation or, to borrow Eliot’s terms, “the intolerable shirt of flame,” the longing to be “redeemed from fire by fire.” Auden, by contrast, accepts, whatever awaits him, that Ariel and Caliban can never separate:

Never hope to say farewell,
For our lethargy is such
Heaven’s kindness cannot touch
Nor earth’s frankly brutal drum;
This was long ago decided….

Decided by whom? The only answer is another question, which is posed in the Preface: “O what authority gives/ Existence its surprise?” And it is surprise that must compensate the reader for the lack, in Auden’s career, of the kind of coherence that links, say, early to middle to late Eliot. The Sea and the Mirror represents his most determined and considered attempt to “grow up,” but it moves most by its failure to do so: in the words of Ariel to Caliban, “only/As I am can I/Love you as you are.”

This Issue

June 10, 2004