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Poets and pointing backwards

February 22, 2013

This article by Alan Jacobs on W.H. Auden may be twelve years old, but it’s still quite good (and it’s being twelve years old means most of my readers were probably too young to care about Auden when it came out). I’m particularly intrigued by Jacobs’ analysis of why contemporary Christians pay little attention to Auden compared to the canon of “great 20th century Christian writers” (a list which, depending on who you talk to, will include some subset of G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy):

In any case, homosexuality alone is not enough to explain the Christian neglect of Auden. More important, perhaps, is his Kierkegaardian emphasis on indirect communication. This emphasis stemmed from Auden’s determination to repent of his, and his fellow poets’, prideful assertions of their own importance. But Christian readers, for the most part, don’t want their poets to be humble: being somewhat Romantic in taste, they tend to prefer their poets to be seers, prophets, “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (as Shelley put it)—just as long as they are Christian seers, prophets, legislators. As they often say, they like poems that are “redemptive.” But Auden understood that nothing and no one is redemptive except Jesus Christ—and thus he called Shelley’s famous line “the silliest remark ever made about poets.” As he wrote to Clio, the mythological Muse of History,

Approachable as you seem,
I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them,
Nor can I see a reason why you should.

He sent this poem to J. R. R. Tolkien, and in an accompanying letter referred to it as “a hymn to Our Lady.” Mary, as the mother of Christ, presides over the world’s moments of ultimate significance: What can poetry add to the Incarnation or the Passion of our Lord?

I find it ironic that Auden sent this poem to Tolkien. Not because it’s strange that a writer immensely popular among academics and relatively unpopular among Christians would be writing a letter to a writer relatively unpopular among academics and immensely popular among Christians (and all normal people). After all, Tolkien taught Auden at Oxford and Auden admired Tolkien’s work (meaning The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; who knows what he would have thought of the Silmarillion?).

Rather, it’s ironic because of what Auden chooses to say. Does he realize how large a gulf the poem he sends reveals between his and Tolkien’s conception of poetry? Auden’s “indirect communication” almost completely inverts Tolkien’s “mythopoeia.” Indirect communication means, roughly, that because poems speak in “resonant lies,” talking about Christianity in a poem will make it seem just another such lie, and so poets have no privileged spiritual office; they can only tell us about Christianity indirectly, by showing us the inadequacy of a world without Christ. Mythopoeia, by contrast, is the idea that the poet is a “little creator” whose work illuminates fundamental truths, and can point us towards the “one true myth” of Christianity. You can’t have both.

But in a way these are just two different ways of saying the same thing: you can’t write a poem about Christ. You can write about Christ-figures, or you can write about the absence of Christ, but Christ is out of bounds. Art cannot be Christian without being ironic. It’s as if (to borrow from Wittgenstein) poetry is a language game where you can only point at Christ backwards, by pointing away from him and expecting people to read you as pointing from finger to forearm rather than the normal way. And since Christ is in the world, this is another way of saying you can’t write about the world. You can only write about other worlds, i.e. mythopoeia, or about false pictures of our world, i.e. indirect communication.

Or you can do both at the same time: write about the world before Christ. In a way, this is what both Tolkien and Auden do. “The Shield of Achilles,” after all, is about ancient Greece. And remember that the history of Middle Earth is said to be the history of our world; the destruction of the Ring marks the end of the Third Age, while we live in the Seventh (which began with Christ’s Annunciation).

This, incidentally, is the major difference between Tolkien’s practice of mythopoeia and C.S. Lewis’s (mis)interpretation of the concept. For all Tolkien’s talk about myths revealing fundamental truths, he never mythologized the Incarnation the way Lewis did with Aslan. His characters are at most types, figures, of Christ, never Christ himself mythologized. It would be fascinating to ask why, and to work out the consequences of either doing so or not–but that’s a task for another day.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. denizb33 permalink
    March 9, 2013 8:13 pm

    It *is* fascinating to ask why. If nothing else it was maybe because he was writing of a time that was essentially pre-Christ. If he’d carried over his characters into a fifth age, then it might have been in the right time frame…

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