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A Baroque Eden

November 6, 2011

I’ve been reading poems by and articles about W.H. Auden for class the last few days. I find much there that is eminently quotable, but for now I offer only Auden’s description of his personal paradise:

  • Landscape–Limestone uplands plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.
  • Climate–British.
  • Ethnic origin of inhabitants–Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.
  • Language–Of mixed origins, like English, but highly inflected.
  • Weights and Measures–Irregular and complicated. No decimal system.
  • Religion–Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.
  • Form of Government–Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.
  • Source of Natural power–Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.
  • Means of transport–Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.
  • Architecture– State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque and Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth Century British and American Colonial.
  • Formal Dress–The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ’40’s.
  • Sources of public information–Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.
  • Public statues–Confined to famous defunct chefs.
  • Public entertainments–Religious processions, brass bands, opera, classical ballet. No movies, radio, or television.

I engaged in a similar thought experiment years ago but would likely say something different today; what I would say I’m not sure. I find many of Auden’s choices quite compelling (and amusing), even if I wouldn’t copy them. There’s something very relaxed about all of it. Auden clearly knows that such a paradise is in fact impossible; you can’t return to Eden (Adam and Eve took care of that). And also something decadent about it. All in all, it’s very different from what I imagine most other modernist writers would put forward.

A strange thing, though: the article in which I encountered this claims that it reflects Auden’s Baroque aesthetic. By Baroque the critic seems to mean something like: extremely ordered but apparently free within that order, offering comfort and shelter by working on a human scale, humanizing the natural world but keeping it in the background to the human… the Baroque can perhaps be described in this way, but it’s certainly not how, e.g., critics talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins use the word. There it means something more like: bursting all boundaries, trying to reach out and seize the divine, foregrounding the detail almost to the detriment of the aesthetic whole… strange that the word can mean such very different things.

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