Auden (1)

George Osbourne wrote a biography of W.H. Auden that came out in 1980. In those days Auden’s reputation had diminished somewhat and his work was considered ‘second-rate.’ Then in the 90s Four Weddings and a Funeral used ‘Stop all the clocks’ and he became ‘popular’. But back in 1980, as I studied Benjamin Britten’s songs set to words by Auden, his writing entranced me. I think I’ll post some of it over the next weeks, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of the biography that, more than thirty years ago, wedged a splinter in the thumb of the material world I was being groomed for.

In the early summer of 1933, Auden experienced one of those rare moments of visionary or mystical insight which, fleeting though they are, can strangely persist as a lifelong influence. A feeling of intense, unearthly serenity, a moment of enlightenment which passes, but which leaves behind it the knowledge that, if only for a moment, the universe has made sense. These experiences do not translate easily to words, not even to the words of so skilful a manipulator of language as Auden, and verbal accounts of such occasions require to be read with a special sympathy. Auden’s account of his vision was written, or at any rate first published, a good thirty years later:

“On 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. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was able later to confirm this.) 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.

“I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regard would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said good-night to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s