Art and Religion: in W. H. Auden's Poetry

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Auden's Religion and Art:

      The most striking characteristic of the considerable body of work which Auden has produced in America is that in all of it, whether in poems, general essays, critical articles, reviews or lectures and whatever his ostensible subject, he discusses religious belief.

Kierkegaard and Christianity:

      It was around the year 1938 that Auden first read Kierkegaard, and it was also around this year that he began going to the church. Kierkegaard divided life into two parts - the human and the divine. About the human part of life his views are very much like those of Marx. Man can know about his life and environment through observation and experiment and in this way control his world. But Kierkegaard differs from Marx in insisting that God exists, though we cannot know Him through the senses. This introduced the element of the irrational in his philosophy. Such belief is logically contradictory and absurd. But all the same, God, the timeless, exists, and the fact of this existence totally modifies human life and human knowledge. But "the existence of absolutes implies the unity of truth, the truths arrived at in different fields cannot ultimately conflict."

Auden even to the last was as much interested in social life as ever before. It is not that being frightened of the problems of political reforms, he has retired to cultivate the good of his own soul; it was not a sudden leap; as a matter of fact there is an easy transition. This transition was necessary for "a change of heart" and for a "good place", the place of love. The only explanation for Man which he now finds tenable is the Christian, and it requires faith, belief in the "irrational", "a leap in the dark".
W. H. Auden

The Religious Note and the Necessity of Choice:

      Auden even to the last was as much interested in social life as ever before. It is not that being frightened of the problems of political reforms, he has retired to cultivate the good of his own soul; it was not a sudden leap; as a matter of fact there is an easy transition. This transition was necessary for "a change of heart" and for a "good place", the place of love. The only explanation for Man which he now finds tenable is the Christian, and it requires faith, belief in the "irrational", "a leap in the dark".

Auden an Optimist:

      Auden was optimistic. He believed that even for the sinful there is hope, love, charity and brotherhood. His belief was in the grace of God and the possibility of making right moral choices, and so moving closer to blessedness.

      Auden has tried to make his reader understand that the way is difficult, but we must have faith and act. We will make many mistakes and never produce an Eden. But we have to do the best we can and carry on without ever being despondent.

"Let us therefore be contrite but without anxiety
For Powers and Times are not gods, but mortal gifts from God;
Let us acknowledge our defeats but without despair,
For all societies and epochs are transient details.
Transmitting an everlasting opportunity.
That the kingdom of Heaven may come not in our present,
And not in our future, but in the Fullness of Time,
Let us pray."

Auden's Social Concepts:

      Auden had a great administration for Marx's insistence on the importance of social life and the need for co-operation. One of the three sections of "New Year Letter" is specially concerned with thee nature of right social action. Social reform begins when we ask ourselves about the conduct of our private lives. This applies to all, and very obviously to those who set out to speak to others, to writers.

The Role of Exceptional Individual:

      Auden repeatedly enumerates the distinction between an 'open and a 'closed' society. In an open society individual is free to make his own moral choices. A society becomes more open as the individuals in it become more responsible. Whereas in closed primitive or fascist societies individual's freedom of choice is removed or minimised, they are therefore constantly tending to become closed. The responsibility of moral decision tends to be taken from the individual. The makers of such a state are the new race of managers dedicated, overworked, strained, brilliantly competent.

Celebration of Blessedness of Life:

      In the Nones volume (1951) Auden's poetry is less a statement that life is blessed, than a celebration of its blessedness. Before God all stand guilty; no man is sinless. Without sinful men, "there would be no authority to command this death", but there would be none of these glad things, either, and the poem spends more lines cataloguing them, praising them and listing the speakers self delighting likes "God bless the Realm, God bless the people. God bless the green world temporal."

Social Value and Significance of Art:

      Another important theme which stands out prominently in Auden's later poetry is the consideration of the value and significance of art. Auden feels that the problem of art is related to the problem of belief. Auden had always been interested in the explanation of the social value of art.

Over-Stressing of Artistic Values: Its Disadvantage:

      In the New Year Letter he is of the view that the artist should not accept conventional social values without questioning. Auden never fully accepted Freudian view that art is almost always harmless and beneficent.

      The danger of over-emphasising the importance of art threatens both the audience and the artist. Art, aesthetics, must not be elevated to the level of religion. This mistake is usually committed by the more intelligent, they confuse the aesthetic with the spiritual, and they make the mistake of regarding spiritual life as a kind of artistic performance.

Similarity of Art:

      Though art may not be of importance it has its own considerable value. Art has its own magic and beauty. Auden has applauded the supremacy of art. To sum up, the two theories of poetry are:

(1) Poetry as a magical means for inducing desirable emotions and repelling undesirable emotions in oneself and other.

(2) Poetry as a game of knowledge, a bringing to consciousness, by naming them, of emotions and their wider relationships. In his option the first view is wrong; the second view is right.

      Art is a blessing in disguise, it has an intrinsic value which transforms or moulds one's mind and character. It frees the readers mind from the trivialities and meanness that the artificiality in society grinds into.

Conclusion:

      The true art has a profound order imparting the sublime atmosphere. Here we quote some distinguished critics of Auden.

(i) "By significant details it shows us that our present state is neither as virtuous nor as secure as we thought, and by the lucid pattern into which it unifies these details, its assertion that order is possible, it faces us with the command to make a actual... No artist, not even Eliot, can prevent his work being used as magic, for that is what all of us, highbrow and lowbrow alike, secretly want Art to be."

(ii) "What else exactly is the artistic gift which he is forbidden to hide, if not to make you unquestionably conscious of, the unvarnished offended gap between what you so questionably are and what you are commanded without any question to become."

The following are the main highlights of later themes of Auden i.e. religion and art:

(i) A radical change occured around the year 1939 when he migrated to U.S.A. So far he was under the influence of Marxism. Now art was the dominating factor in his poetry.

(ii) He was under the influence of Kierkegaard and Christianity. Auden also feels that the entire universe moves towards a predestined design, the design made by God. Since this design is mysterious and unknown, man may seen free to choose, but his 'choice is strictly limited by the design of God.

(iii) Auden feels necessity of our freedom. But this necessity must be governed by some religious principles and dogmas. Necessity also connotes 'Faith' and 'Freedom' as moral choice. Verse form "We live in freedom by necessity, A mountain people dwelling among mountains."

(iv) Moral choice is acquired by virtue. Men are never perfect, but constantly becoming perfect as a result of choice, and this choice must be made morally.

(v) By using his freedom wrongly man commits sin and as a result courts his own ruin. The sin or ruin may differ from person to person but the roots remain the same.

(vi) Auden recognises the scientific method as the only way of asking, questioning for obtaining valid knowledge. To him art should be enriched by the scientific proof. And thus both science and art have values as parts.

(vii) Auden, even to the last, was as much interested in social life as ever before. To Auden, social reform begins when we ask ourselves about the conduct of our private lives.

(vii) Auden thinks that there are two types of society: one is, open society, in which the individual is free to make his own moral choices. Secondly, closed society, in which the individual's freedom of choice is removed or minimised.

(ix) Man should acknowledge his sin. But there is no need to despair as there is possibility of love, charity and brotherhood, the grace of God.

(x) Though in his early writings and the writings of middle phase he was in dilemma to stick to the point whether life was more sinful or blessed. In the 1940's sinfulness began to falter and was totally defeated in his writings of 1950's.

(xi) Auden started celebrating life's blessedness in his last phase. Here, acceptance of life becomes even more joyous.

"God bless the realm, God bless the people:
God bless the green world temporal."

(xii) Freudian concept of art was not fully accepted by Auden as totally harmless. Auden was much more concerned with the social value of art, though he admitted that the artist should not accept the social values without questioning.

(xiii) Art should always be a guide to life. Too much emphasis on artistic values is a hindrance to both artists and the audiences. Feeling the force of his own gifts a poet should not play with God, the sublime.

(xiv) Auden calls poetry, "A magical means for inducing desirable emotions" and "As game of knowledge, bringing to consciousness, by naming them."

      According to Auden, the second view is right. It contains a wide mandate for art according to which the creative imagination is the Ariel in man.

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