An Age of Anxiety: W.H. Auden’s Existential Theology of the 1940s

By Sam Leiva

Auden, as photographed in the 1950s
Auden, as photographed in the 1950s

Born in York, England in 1907, the poet W.H. Auden is celebrated as one of the most accomplished writers of the 20th century. Admired for his vast intellect, unsurpassed virtuosity in verse’s technical forms, and wide–ranging fields of knowledge, Auden found eminence across the Atlantic during his long tenure as a poet. Following the 1930s, an era indelibly marked by the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Spanish Civil War, the 1940s was a time of great national and global crises. As the period brought vast changes to the United States across its social, political, and economic spheres, it also introduced the U.S. to a new, collective fear centered on the existential questions of alienation, authenticity, and the meaning of man’s existence in the modern world. For Auden, this era of conflict and unprecedented transformations called for a new kind of poetry to be written.

Auden’s poetic emphases went through great shifts in the 40s. The 30s, a time he named the ‘low, dishonest decade’ where man passively watched the arrival of the Second World War, found Auden searching for rational and pragmatic solutions to the world’s anxieties, primarily through the psychology of Sigmund Freud and Marxist thought. Yet, by the 40s, Auden instead embraced an existential philosophy centered on the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, and worked to develop an existential theology as a means to understand the era he would later name the “age of anxiety.” If the modern world was defined by its collective neuroses of war, hatred, and anxiety, Auden’s answer to this disease now rested firmly in the individual.[1] No longer believing in the secular remedies he had once found in leftist politics and the collectivity, Auden came to focus on the liberation of a spiritual, privately inward life.

Religious ties ran deep in Auden’s family; both of his grandfathers were Anglican priests, and his mother was highly devout. Yet, a young Auden displayed more interest in the “exciting magical rites” of the Church with their “music, candles and incense” than he ever did its sermons, didactic lessons or dogmas.[2] He often explained his loss of faith at sixteen rather plainly, as having simply lost interest. This loss, however, was soon substituted by an intense autodidacticism as he avidly probed fields as diverse as Greek literature, politics, Norse mythology, and modern scientific innovations. Despite his secular interests, religion was never truly divorced from Auden’s poetry. Writing in 1937, Auden’s fellow writer and lifelong friend Christopher Isherwood wrote, “If [he] had his way, he would turn every play into a cross between grand opera and high mass.”[3] Even in the disbelief of his early career, Auden was inextricably attracted to religion and ritual, and would inevitably find himself moving away from an emphasis on secular knowledge and toward faith by the 40s.

I. Auden’s Crises of the 30s and 40s

Auden reconverted to Christianity and returned to the Anglican Communion in 1940. During the decade to follow, the subject of his poetry and prose assumed a new, Christian existential theology inspired by his reading of Kierkegaard. Auden’s reformation was by no means abrupt; it was neither sudden, nor instigated by any singular event, but occurred as a gradual process culminating from many private and collective crises in the 30s and 40s.

Auden left England and immigrated to the U.S. with Isherwood in January 1939. His arrival in New York City would signify a more or less permanent exile in America until his death in 1973. At the age of 31, Auden had already attained an impressive reputation in England, heralded as the leader of his literary generation as well as a staunch proponent of left-wing politics. In turn, many English nationals saw his emigration as an abandonment of his literary promise and a desertion of England during its time of crisis.[4] Although Auden’s national dislocation often looms over his biography, the principal revolution Auden underwent in the 40s was one of personal theology.

Allied with leftist causes in 1937, Auden travelled to the Republican front of the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer, yet this trip only disillusioned him from leftist politics by exposing the realities of totalitarianism and war. Uncharacteristically shocked after witnessing the forced closure of Barcelona’s churches and the persecution of Spain’s clergy, Auden, an avowed Atheist admitted: “I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me.”[5] Two years later in November 1939, while living with Isherwood in Manhattan, Auden went to a Yorkville cinema to see the film Sieg im Poland, a propagandistic account of Hitler’s Polish conquest. When Poles appeared on screen, a number of the largely German and seemingly harmless audience members fervently shouted, “Kill them! Kill them!”[6] This event, joined by the rise of Nazism that “made no pretense of believing in justice and liberty for all, and attacked Christianity on the ground that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings” led Auden to question the inherent goodness of humanity and the value of his strong, leftist leanings.[7]

Ashamed of his poetry’s collective, pro–communist ethos that appeared to sanction the oppression in Spain, Auden later censored the lines from his famous poem “Spain”: “To–day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” [8] Auden came to understand after his return that declamatory speech, whether spoken by a poet or dictator, was politically and socially ineffective, if not destructive. Having also written earlier in his poem “September 1, 1939” that he, being composed like all humanity “Of Eros and of dust” was still able to “Show an affirming flame,” Auden now questioned man’s morality and the social efficacy of poetry in a decade of global violence.[9] This period marked a crucial time for Auden’s development as a poet and citizen, for it was the end of an Auden who succumbed to the seduction of politically–coerced violence and romanticized prophetic visions.

Auden was also affected by profound mystical experiences during this period. He highlights a formative, mystical episode he experienced one summer night in 1933 while out with a few colleagues:

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… 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.[10]

Auden later describes this “irresistible” feeling as the vision of agape, or brotherly love, and it would serve as the touchstone in which he aligned his faith with the moral, human imperative to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. This vision incited his sense that spirituality––not yet aligned with any religion––could help bridge human relations and extend empathy. Yet, six years after this experience, he met and fell in love with Chester Kallman, and simultaneously endured the greatest test of his new conviction.

Auden met Kallman, a college student in Brooklyn 14 years his junior, in 1939. The lifelong relationship that ensued was an arduous one. After two years, Auden considered their relationship a true marriage in the moral and ethical sense. Yet, faithfulness was not something Kallman could offer in return. In 1941, Kallman disavowed their sexual relationship and confirmed his infidelity. In his essay in Modern Canterbury Pilgrims, Auden wrote retrospectively: “I was forced to know in person what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers… stripped of self–control and self–respect, behaving like a ham actor in a Strindberg play.”[11] Kallman’s persistent faithlessness was a rupture that violently shook Auden’s faithful vocation to love unequivocally, testing and causing him great pain for the majority of his life. Yet, this suffering would allow Auden to understand a deep sense of self–sacrificing forgiveness––to accept all men, like Kallman––with their faults, a belief that would undergird the majority of his later writings.

Returning from Spain, Auden met the theologian Charles Williams at Oxford (at the time convincing its Press to translate Kierkegaard’s work into English), who introduced him to existential thought. After this meeting, Auden noted, “presently, I started to read some theological works, Kierkegaard in particular, and began going, in a tentative and experimental way, to church.”[12] Auden drew from Kierkegaard’s affirmation of faith as well as Christian existentialism’s emphasis on the individual soul and the importance of freedom and moral choice. After rejecting the dehumanizing power of collectivism, rationalism, and State power that emerged in the 30s, Auden decided to accept faith for its chance of redemption it the modern world. This existential focus incited Auden to move away from politics and write about explicit, theological subjects. Reflecting on his gradual theological awakening in 1941, Auden wrote:

There is a faith by which a man lives his life as a man, i.e. the presuppositions he holds in order that 1. he may make sense of his past and present experience; 2. he may be able to act toward the future with a sense that his action will be meaningful and effective; 3. that he and his world may be changed from what they were to something more satisfactory.[13]

For Auden, the combination of faith and poetry achieved all three criteria. His once purely intellectual and aesthetic beliefs could now accommodate faith. Concluding that theology, critical thought, and poetry were not antithetical, but could coexist and complement each other’s natures, faith for Auden gave a more profound experience of poetry and human experience. As Arthur Kirsch elucidates: “His faith expanded the horizons of his mind as well as his heart, and his formidable intelligence, in turn, probed the nature and limits of his Christian belief, animating his continuous quest not only to believe still but also to believe again.”[14] This continuous, existential quest to affirm one’s faith would be Auden’s chief aim as a poet, as well as the principal guiding motive of Auden’s poetry in the 40s.

Auden (right) and Isherwood (left), photographed by Carl Van Vechtan in 1939 a few months after their arrival to the United States.
Auden (right) and Isherwood (left), photographed by Carl Van Vechtan in 1939 a month after their arrival to the U.S..

II. Auden’s Age of Anxiety: Toward an Existential Theology

The 19th century, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was crucial to Auden’s reconversion and his work emerged as the greatest influence on Auden’s poetry and prose during the 40s. As outlined by the intellectual historian George Cotkin in Existential America, Kierkegaard’s vein of existentialism first started gaining popularity among American writers and intellectuals in the late 30s and 40s with the work of Charles Williams and the Protestant theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Auden’s close friendships with all three theologians in and around New York and England were key to his fast, yet comprehensive intake of existential thought and its manifestations in his later poetry.

Christian existential philosophy’s emphasis on personal volition profoundly reinforced Auden’s rejection of collectivity and his overtly political poetry of the 30s. Similarly, its focus on individual experience was crucial to Auden’s decision to write in a more personal, rather than oratorical way. Auden’s poetry during this period was centered on three tenets of Christian existential theology: Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety and its bearing on experience in the modern world, the conflict and tension created by Kierkegaard’s three stages of existence, and the importance of taking the “leap of faith” to confront anxiety and find redemption in God’s grace. Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s three–part dialectic, and the leap of faith all organize and feature prominently in Auden’s major works of the 40s.

In his essay “A Preface to Kierkegaard,” Auden’s centers his concept of anxiety on the belief that each person exists as “a conscious being who at every moment must choose of his own free will one of an infinite number of possibilities which he foresees,” and that “each choice is irrevocable… for he can neither guarantee nor undo the consequences of any choice he makes”[15] Existing inwardly, one is unanchored by any external or absolute standards of judgment. This state of absolute freedom that Niebuhr called the “the paradoxical situation of freedom and finiteness” often induced terror in the possibility of failure.[16] Yet, Auden believed that by accepting the fact that one “alone determines the values by which he lives,” and “is not endowed with a ready–made self or nature,” anxiety could be a profoundly liberating force.[17] In accepting that one must constantly be engaged in setting the stakes for one’s own existence, one could realize greater meaning and strength despite life’s inherent uncertainty. Auden and Kierkegaard both found this existential meaning in faith.

Kierkegaard theorized a tripartite dialectic in response to anxiety, consisting of the Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious realms (in hierarchical, rising order of spiritual worth). These stages or categories of existence, notably explored in Kierkegaard’s 1842 work Either/Or and 1846 Concluding Unscientific Postscript all offer some form of resolution to anxiety. The Aesthetic realm is defined by its immediacy and individuality, centered on one’s pursuit of life’s pleasure and flight from pain. This interest can manifest in myriad forms, from physical lust to artistic interest. Kierkegaard described the Aesthete as being “undialectical in himself,” for in indulging in finite pleasure, it can neither be aware of an infinite self or an infinite God.[18] The Ethical stage, however, rejects this static finiteness and is aware of a universal relation to others, and acts according to personal morality as well as the expectations of others and society. The self that emerges, is not “only a personal self [as the Aesthete], but a social, a civic self,” and acknowledges a moral orientation around a sense of good and evil, a sense of common good.[19] Yet, the Ethicist’s knowledge is still idealized, much like the Aesthete’s, for like the Aesthete’s pursuit of art for its pleasure, the Ethicist’s knowledge can never be fully complete, and is a flawed attempt to see a supposed objective truth. Though an Ethicist acknowledges the contradiction of finite experience and an ever-changing subjective reality, it is still unable to see its relationship to God.

The Ethicist may act according to a sense of morality, but it lacks a conception of sin. As Auden points out, “knowledge of the good does not automatically cause the knower to will it,” and one may not only yield to temptation, but “disobey deliberately out of spite, just to show that he is free.”[20] Auden called the Religious stage “The power by which, without blinding himself to his anxiety, [one] is nevertheless still able to choose.”[21] Although the Religious encompasses both Aesthetic and Ethical experience, the Religious is separated from them by a gulf that can only be crossed with what Kierkegaard termed a “leap to faith.”

Faith and belief in God are absurd, essentially irrational, non–empirical, and unknowable. As a result, the ascent toward the religious stage must correspond with a submission for the supra–rationality of faith, God, and existence, yet remain grounded knowing that one can never be sure of God, but still continuously attempt to believe. The search is inward, yet the answer is invariably external, for both Auden and Kierkegaard believed that to accept God and man’s universal sinfulness is to “put tremendous emphasis on God as the saving power, rather than on any goodness or good works in Man.”[22] Kierkegaard highlights this difficulty in Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

All paganism consists in this, that God is related to man directly, as the extraordinary is to the astonished observer. But the spiritual relationship to God in the truth, i.e., in inwardness, is conditioned by a prior irruption of inwardness, which corresponds to the divine elusiveness that God has absolutely nothing obvious about Him, that God is so far from being obvious, that He is invisible. It cannot immediately occur to anyone that He exists, although His invisibility is again His omnipresence.[23]

Auden similarly expressed this paradox of “omnipresence” and “invisibility” while speaking to a New York congregation in 1951, stating, “our dominant experience is of God’s absence, of His distance.”[24] Following World War I, modernity’s rapid changes of materialism, bureaucracy, and technological and scientific innovations created a rift between man’s spirituality and the increasing material demands of the physical world. As a result, man became more secular, more external. Yet, this world could be bridged despite this other, modern “absence,” an answer that Auden envisioned, like Kierkegaard before him, in faith.

For Auden and Kierkegaard, to accept faith is to accept the absurd. This supra–rationality could be approached in many ways, and both writers faced this understanding through paradox, namely in the Christian Incarnation. The Incarnation, the existence of an infinite, out–of–time, transcendent God with finite, temporal, mortal existence in the body of Christ, bridged the mortal world with the divine world. Both writers saw this paradox as representing the difficulty in trying to understand as well as accept faith. Although for Auden––perhaps more importantly than for Kierkegaard––in searching for redemption from anxiety as well as sin, the relevance of the Incarnation and of Christ were tantamount. In understanding the place between rational inquiry and faithful acceptance, Auden emphasized: “The Way rests upon Faith and Skepticism. Faith that the divine law exists, and that our knowledge of it can improve; and skepticism that our knowledge of these laws can ever be perfect.”[25] For Auden, individuals must remain skeptical, yet respond to faith willingly, and accept God as––echoing the words of Kierkegaard and Charles Williams in The Descent of the Dove––that in relation to God, we are always in the wrong, and thus continue making the decision to believe.

Auden’s expatriation was also rooted in existential belief. He was attracted to America for he believed that more than anywhere else, it revealed that “Aloneness is man’s real condition.”[26] Confronted by his former Oxford tutor and friend E.R. Dodds who opposed his move, Auden responded: “What I am trying to do… is to live deliberately without roots.”[27] As clarified by Samuel Hynes in his essay “The Voice of Exile: Auden in the 1940s,” by living in an individualistic society like that of New York, Auden was be able to “to go in quest of a life that would be a parable of the condition of Modern Man.”[28] This was invariably an existential quest. England, a nation with the old securities, long history, and ingrained traditions was the wrong place to embark on this venture. By leaving England, Auden was free to develop as he wished, away from his overbearing titles of literary and leftist repute. Yet, as Nicholas Jenkins notes, Auden’s expatriation did not correspond to a strict disconnection from his previous reputations, as he had already been published and widely read by American intellectual and literary circles by the time of his expatriation.[29] Yet, by living in an international city like New York, Auden was able to embrace an identity as a world (rather than national) citizen, make mistakes on his own terms, and see where they took him.

Auden devoted the majority of his creative effort in the 40s to four long poems: New Year Letter, The Sea and the Mirror, For the Time Being, and The Age of Anxiety. All of his major works of the 40s are involved in expressing Kierkegaard’s dialectic, and after New Year Letter, they all prominently feature characters moving across Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious existence. Yet, it is primarily through the first three that Auden clearly develops his existential outlook. In New Year Letter Auden lays the foundation of his new theology, in The Sea and the Mirror he marks the limitations and inadequacies of the first two realms, and in For the Time Being, he articulates the importance of taking the “leap of faith” to the Religious realm (as well as its inevitable fall) through accepting the paradox of the Incarnation.

Søren Kierkegaard, Auden's consummate philosopher of his 'age of anxiety,' as sketched by Niels Christian Kierkegaard.
Søren Kierkegaard, the principal philosopher of Auden’s “age of anxiety,” as sketched by Niels Christian Kierkegaard circa 1840.

III. Auden in Transition: New Year Letter

Composed in early 1940 and published in The Double Man, New Year Letter was the first long work Auden wrote in the U.S. and his first sustained exploration of theology and existential thought. Due to its three–part structure, some scholars like Edward Callan have argued that the poem’s division models Kierkegaard’s triad, but this is likely too rigid and narrow an interpretation in approaching the poem.[30] New Year Letter is dense, and aims to find reason in the moral calamity brought on by World War II. Perhaps not strictly Kierkegaardian, the poem is critical in its transitional nature, exploring Auden’s shift from the liberal humanism of his early career to his new, existential belief. This shift is principally centered in its depiction of a modern world of anxiety, its concept of Original Sin, and the significance of existential choice.

New Year Letter is dated January 1, 1939. On that day the 30s ended and a new decade began. “To-night a scrambling decade ends,” Auden writes, referring to same “low, dishonest decade” where the world watched as a new war dawned and the poet believed poetry could enact grand, political changes.[31] The 20th century’s totalitarian evils are rampant in the poem. The modern world’s failures resound with the depiction of “The Asiatic cry of pain / The shot of executing Spain” just as they do in the bleak and unforgiving images of “The Jew wrecked in the German cell” and of “Flat Poland Frozen in Hell.” This reality is not simply a critique of human brutality, but is a condemnation of liberal humanism’s idealized beliefs and optimistic trust in man’s good will that had failed to combat it. The idealized beliefs in Marxist and Freudian thought that had proved so formative in Auden’s earlier 30s poetry are by no means innocent. Confronted by these horrors, Auden resolved with a firm belief that “it was impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self evident.”[32] Edward Mendelson outlines Auden’s shift to existentialism around the time of New Year Letter’s composition:

Kierkegaard’s existential Christianity offered two strengths that psychoanalysis and politics could not: it perceived its relation to an absolute value; and it understood that it could never claim to know or embody that value… Auden scarcely needed Kierkegaard’s absolute to know that Hitler was in the wrong, but because it obliged him to acknowledge that he too was in the wrong, he could believe its implicit judgment against Hitler more thoroughly than he could believe judgments that gave secret consolations to vanity.[33]

Freud, Marx, as well as Hitler all believed in their principles without proper skepticism, and privileged their knowledge and authority over human experience. Existentialism not only strengthened Auden’s belief that horror can rise from humans’ insistence on absolutism, but also reinforced his belief that a sense of morality and consideration for the individual could help work against these atrocities.

Auden’s Devil in New Year Letter tempts humans with “the either/ors, the mongrel halves” and “the gift of double-focus,” using half–truths to occlude the reality of God’s design.[34] This “double-focus” draws from The Double Man’s quotation of Montaigne found in its original publication: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” Kierkegaard saw truth as subjective, as the objective world was ever–changing. Auden, now a “Double Man” with New Year Letter, also saw that he works in conflict with an outer self who had privileged the collective’s subjectivity and an inner self with private insight of his own, flawed world.

As identified by the scholar Stephen Schuler, the phrase also “suggests the fallen, self–conscious individual who is torn between competing, contradictory desires and who wishes for a return to pre–Fall wholeness.”[35] For the first time, Auden directly uses the Kierkegaardian axiom that “To sin is to act consciously / Against what seems necessity.”[36] (thus humans thwart the Devil in New Year Letter by rejecting reason, for in rejecting reason, they reject free will, and without free will are sinless.) Auden’s idea of sin derives from Kierkegaard’s concept of Original Sin. As the first human, Adam was also the first individual to experience anxiety in his choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. God’s prohibition had implied Adam’s freedom, and in Adam’s choice to reject God’s design in Original Sin, good and evil were brought into being, undergirding the existential maxim that ‘anxiety precedes sin.’ In a fallen state, we live in anxiety. Yet, our anxiety and the conscious saliency of our choice also informs us of our responsibility to realize our own potential, as well as the possibility of salvation.

As Auden suggests, in “admitting every step we make / Will certainly be a mistake,” yet “still believing we can climb / A little higher every time,” we recognize the futility of our actions, and continue to act despite our doubt.[37] Auden presents humanity in a dual image: destined to fall, yet also destined to continue the climb. Highlighting the significance of choice in face of this eternal, Sisyphus-like task, Auden asserts that “we’re free to will / Ourselves up Purgatory still, / Consenting parties to our lives.” In the desperate state of affairs presented by New Year Letter, both the poet (Auden in his Tribunal in Part II) and humanity (emerging from the Adamic myth) have an essential freedom, not circumscribed within divine predestination but free to take up the existential responsibility to their neighbors and to make the moral choice. Life indeed is a “purgatorial hill we climb / Where any skyline we attain / Reveals a higher ridge again,” yet the redemption in our age of anxiety lies in the attempt to change.

Auden questions the social efficacy of poetry at the poem’s end, asserting that “No words men write can stop the war / Or measure up to the relief / Of its immeasurable grief.” Yet, as he wrote in The Dyer’s Hand, he also believed that poetry “is a witness to man’s knowledge of evil as well as good. It is not the duty of a witness to pass moral judgment on the evidence he has to give, but to give it clearly and accurately,” for “the only crime of which a witness can be guilty is perjury.” The poet does have a role here, not to espouse political rhetoric, but to extend human empathy and increase our awareness of others, for “We need to love all since we are / Each a unique particular,” he professes, all an “odd human isomorph.”[38] Among his myriad references to figures like St. Augustine of Hippo, Carl Jung, and Montaigne, Auden also asserts a principal part of his Kierkegaardian existential belief, that we all have unique relationships with humanity as well as with God. Although God may appear absent, and even impersonal, Auden believed he was entirely personal in his ability to love and forgive humanity.

Around New Year Letter’s composition, Auden’s brother–in–law Golo Mann noted that “On Sundays, [Auden] began to disappear for a couple of hours and returned with a look of happiness on his face. After a few weeks he confided in me the object of these mysterious excursions: the Episcopalian Church.”[39] Some critics have noted that the poem appears secular and that its theology is rather abstract and formless. Yet like the poet’s recent excursions to church, it is critical in working to shape Auden’s theological insight to form. Unlike the poet’s earlier, national poems like “September 1, 1939” and “Spain” that ended with secular prayer such as the imperative to ‘show an affirming flame,’ New Year Letter explicitly turns to religious prayer, to “Send strength sufficient for our day, / And point our knowledge on its way, / O da quod jubes Domine,” a quotation that implores the ability of redemption through the belief in Christ.[xl] Perhaps there may be no enduring guidance or comfort from the decade’s anxiety and despair, yet Auden shows there is hope, hope that we will make a choice, and hope that we will keep walking despite the missteps we make. In this, Auden’s conception of anxiety in New Year Letter is not critical for its ability to illicit dread in the human psyche, but for its ability to point us to the possibility of redemption through the reality of personal potential and existential choice.

IV. The Sea and the Mirror and Kierkegaard’s Three Stages of Existence

Auden’s roughly 1500-line poem The Sea and the Mirror is often regarded as his masterpiece. Subtitled “A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” the 1944 poem takes place immediately after Shakespeare’s work ends. After the stage’s pretense dissolves into the sea along with the curtain call, Shakespeare’s characters are able to speak freely about their roles in the play and their relations to Prospero’s art. Although The Sea and the Mirror uses Shakespeare’s setting and themes like the inconsistency between the “sea” of reality and the “mirror” of art and the spiritual process of self–realization in The Tempest’s “sea change,” Auden did not intend to limit himself to an interpretation of Shakespeare’s work. Rather, he employs its framework to embody and give life to his own developing existential thought.

The Sea and the Mirror is divided into fourteen dramatic monologues spoken by The Tempest’s characters, each given their unique verse form (for example, Miranda the villanelle, and Ferdinand the sonnet). Throughout the poem, Shakespeare’s characters all experience their own, unique “sea changes,” yet these transformations are now transposed along Kierkegaard’s dialectic. Auden explores art’s moral impact as well as its attempt to reflect reality without distorting it, having explained to his friend Ursula Niebuhr that the poem “is really about the Christian conception of art.”[41] Auden dedicates the majority of the poem and his treatise on the characters Prospero and Caliban, and uses their experiences to probe the flawed certainties conjured by Aesthetic and Ethical existence.

An exiled Prospero has lived on Shakespeare’s island for twelve years with his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel, and his “creature” Caliban. Among all of The Sea and the Mirror’s characters, Prospero’s journey is the one to most closely adheres to Kierkegaard’s process of self–awareness and becoming. Prospero is an “enchanter,” having relied on Ariel’s power to his hide his reality and exert his force on the island and its inhabitants. Through his initial “enchantment,” Prospero has been detached from reality and focuses on individual experience. He is the consummate Aesthete, and has neglected his own development to a point of extreme stasis in an effort to suppress his anxiety and purpose after Shakespeare’s work finishes. He eventually recognizes this inadequacy in Auden’s poem.

After having freed Ariel from imprisonment in The Tempest and indulging in his power, Prospero renounces the spirit in The Sea and the Mirror. In a passionate act of forgiveness, Prospero gives freedom to Ariel, and attempts to move past his previous reliance on art and its illusions. “I am glad I have freed you” he confesses, “So at last I can really believe I shall die. / For under your influence death is inconceivable.”[42] After understanding the limitations an aesthetic existence imposes on his relationships with the outside world, Prospero rejects its will to power. If Prospero existed aesthetically in his previous enchantment, he now embarks upon the Ethical in his forgiveness and embracement of outward existence.

At The Tempest’s end in Prospero’s Epilogue, we receive a hint of the aesthetic realm’s promise, as well as a possible respite from the tempest of the mind and spirit: “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be reliev’d by prayer.” We return to this state in The Sea and the Mirror. Prospero’s dismissal of Ariel is full of uncertainty as well as pain, and he describes himself after having lost his aesthetic orientation as “Sailing alone, out over seventy thousand fathoms.” This phrase alludes to Kierkegaard’s claim that to have faith is to face the contradiction of inwardness and objective uncertainty, where one “must continually see to [to be] out on 70,000 fathoms of water’ and still have faith.”[43] In this same existential prospect, Prospero goes on to question, “I never suspected the way of truth / Was a way of silence” and in his doubt, asserts that “Where I go, words carry no weight; it is best, / Then, I surrender their fascinating counsel / To the silent dissolution of the sea.”[44] Kierkegaard often associated silence, or resignation, with the Religious Realm, and in using the same concept, Auden implies Prospero’s possible movement toward religious existence.

Man, although created in God’s image, is unfinished, and like Prospero, is eternally on his journey of “becoming.” Prospero’s embodiment of self–resignation, newfound wisdom and tolerance seems completely sincere. His beliefs lie shattered before him, and his former Aesthetic enchantment and Ethical forgiveness have now exhausted their possibilities. All that can resolve his existential despair is his acceptance of, faith, yet his plea is followed by a scathing denouncement by Antonio. Deriding Prospero’s new self–image as merely another self–deception and illusion as well as his indulgence in language and ornamentation, Antonio’s speech is jarring. In a short speech of derision and criticism following Prospero’s lines, Antonio completely destroyed the image the former enchanter has constructed through his eloquent address. Prospero’s “magic books,” his method of illusion and Aesthetic existence, will “soon reappear, / Not even damaged,” and his attempt to instill a sense of change is betrayed by Antonio as artificial, merely another performance that has attempted to imitate life. The wisdom, tolerance, and benediction that overflow in Prospero’s former address now suddenly turn to ash, merely another attempt of Prospero to hide his own inner stasis. Antonio’s words hold truth, for although Prospero pardons Ariel, he neglects to faced his own flawed reality, and never sees a system larger than himself or his current experience. In effect, Prospero never truly leaves his reliance on the aesthetic, for his external illusion on the island and his successive illusions of grandeur and artifice merely serve to occlude reality.

While The Sea and the Mirror’s characters rejoice in their respective soliloquys over Prospero’s ability to make their experience of life seem more meaningful through his “magic,” appealing variously to Aesthetic or Ethical existence and power, Antonio unfailingly appears and undercuts all progress made. Antonio, who insists on the persistence of human imperfection, sees through every image humanity works to hide its nature. Miranda’s moving song of love becomes sloppy and indulgent. Adrian and Francisco’s changes become flat and unreflexive. Antonio merely casts a glance, and all human artifice, even after the characters claim to have left it behind, dissolve into the sea. His message is clear; we never leave the stage that is our lives.

Yet, disregarding Antonio’s cynicism, all of Auden’s characters seem to depart the island for Naples the better, having been influenced by Prospero’s “magic.” The only clear exception is Antonio. Although Antonio, the ethicist that critiques aestheticism, is able to recognize that there is more to the image than what the rest of the characters see, he ultimately fails to seek any form of change himself. Antonio is the only major character not to undergo the “sea change,” for in relying on his intellect and arrogance, he ultimately retreats further into himself and his narrow view of reality, rejecting everything but the supremacy of the self. He ultimately experiences the same failure as Prospero, for in merely relying on his direct experiences and perceptions, he is never able to transcend them.

The Sea and the Mirror’s final speech, “Caliban to the Audience,” is by far the poem’s longest section as well as the most crucial section in understanding the failure of Prospero’s Aesthetic delusion. Caliban addresses the audience over both his and Ariel’s roles, as well as the roles of the flesh and spirit. In New Year Letter, Auden informed us that “Art in intention is mimesis / But, realized, the resemblance ceases,” for it cannot fully represent life and its immediacy. Here, it is Caliban who is chosen for this discussion of art, rather than the nonbeing Ariel, the spirit of artistic power. Caliban speaks in the style of the late Henry James, ironically the most artificial style possible, and thus the farthest idiom from his nature.

In his address, Caliban emphasizes that the characters’ failures also lie in their inability to capture the gulf separating aesthetic and religious existence.

Only now it is not in spite of them but with them that we are blessed by 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… it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected work which is not ours.[45]

In recognizing that our art with its limitations, are merely “feebly figurative signs,” and then choosing to cross the “emphatic gulf” in faith despite “the ruins and the bones,” we arrive at Caliban’s final image; the only true, perfect work that can reflect reality is God’s Creation alone. Indeed, aesthetics can never fully capture reality, and this fact rests in the fact that it is only an incomplete version of Creation.

As Kirsch identifies in his introduction to The Sea and the Mirror “Auden unquestionably and profoundly identified with Prospero as an artist.”[46] Although Auden critiques art in his poem, this did not amount to a renunciation of poetry. In a 1947 lecture, Auden said that art “can give people an experience, but it cannot dictate the use they make of that experience.”[47] For Auden, any theory of art must involve reconciliation between the attraction of illusion and an understanding and knowledge of its inevitable failure in representing life. Art’s power is derived from its ability to extend imaginative sympathy of morality, and as emphasized in The Sea and the Mirror, not in a power to directly change reality.

If art serves to obscure or briefly pacify our anxiety through illusion, then Auden also suggests that art’s failure can also serve to bring us closer to faith. The Sea and the Mirror was published alongside Auden’s other long, dramatic poem For the Time Being in 1944, and the poems are complements in his vision of man’s spiritual quest of self–realization and arrival at faith. This process extends beyond Shakespeare’s island. The audience’s voice and its dissent is prominent in “Caliban to the Audience,” and Auden’s imperative is that we, the audience, also give ourselves over to this new, existential “sea–change.” In taking us to the limits of the Aesthetic and Ethical realms, Auden directs us to the Religious realm, where by taking the religious leap to faith, we may find redemption in spite of our anxiety. While The Sea and the Mirror instills an image of profound disproportion between spiritual and material existence, For the Time Being introduces their reconciliation in the coming birth of Christ.

In 1945, Auden was recruited by the U.S. Army's Strategic Bombing Survey to travel to Germany and collect stories from citizens to assess the conditions of postwar Germany. He is pictured in uniform with Tania Stern, to whom The Sea and the Mirror is dedicated (along with her husband James).
In 1945, Auden was recruited by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Bombing Survey to travel to Germany and collect stories from citizens to assess the conditions of postwar Germany. He is pictured here in uniform with Tania Stern, to whom The Sea and the Mirror is dedicated (along with her husband James Stern).

V. For the Time Being: Kierkegaard’s “Leap of Faith” and the Christian Incarnation

Written from 1941 to 1944 and subtitled “A Christmas Oratorio,” Auden’s For the Time Being retells the story of the New Testament Nativity. Yet, For the Time Being marks a strong departure from traditional Nativity literature, for it is less a devotional piece than it is a philosophical work. If The Sea and the Mirror terminates with the exhaustion of Aesthetic and Ethical possibility, For the Time Being introduces the necessity to make Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” an act that can only be achieved by accepting the paradox of the Incarnation. Divided into nine accounts before and after the birth of Christ, opening with “Advent” and ending with “Flight into Egypt,” the poem’s characters all confront the birth of Christ with varying responses, and illustrate the relevance of Christ and the Incarnation in the modern world.

The landscape of For the Time Being is set in “Our parish of immediacy” where “Vast spiritual disorders lie,” an unprecedented moment of despair with the advent of World War II that frames the Nativity as “Darkness and snow descend,” and “The evil and armed draw near” [48]. The imagery, similar to that of New Year Letter is dark and foreboding, yet it is at this unprecedented moment of anxiety that however improbable, the miraculous birth of Christ occurs. Setting this existential scene, Auden borrows from Paul Tillich’s vocabulary of the “Void” and the “Abyss,” not to focus on the despair resulting from anxiety, but on Tillich’s emphasis on the regenerative power that can occur from the exhaustion of Aesthetic and Ethical attempts to understand the irrational and terrifying present. The “Advent” implied does not simply refer to the beginning of the liturgical calendar preceding Christ’s birth, but outlines the advent of Kierkegaard’s anxiety, a point of disorder that the scholar Edward Callan terms a “limit situation” that serves as a “necessary prelude to faith.”[49] Distinct from The Sea and the Mirror, the poem directly frames this anxiety with impending global crises, remaking the image of the Nativity into an event of contemporary disaster. And it is in this calamity that Auden emphasizes the enduring presence of the Incarnation in the modern world as man’s salvation.

As the moment where infinite, out–of–time, divinity was embodied with finite, in–time, mortal existence, the Incarnation was a central paradox for Kierkegaard that highlighted the irrationality of faith as well as the possibility of human redemption through its acceptance and the submission to God’s design. In For the Time Being, Auden’s characters largely serve as archetypical figures that dramatize the difficulty in making this dialectic leap in their acceptance of the Incarnation and Christ’s birth. While all of Auden’s characters experience this event (in person or through rumor) such as Mary in the Annunciation or the Three Wise Men, the conflict is made most evident through the oppositional relationship Auden establishes between Simeon and Herod, respectively as Kierkegaard’s man of faith and man of rationality. Auden locates his clearest argument in their intellectual and spiritual struggle, highlighting their addresses by having them alone speak in prose. The center of the poem rests in “The Meditation of Simeon,” where the theologian Simeon sets the stakes of the religious leap:

The Word could not be made Flesh until men had reached a state of absolute contradiction between clarity and despair in which they would have no choice but either to accept absolutely or reject absolutely yet in their choice there should be no element of luck, for they would be fully conscious of what they were accepting or rejecting.[50]

It is at this moment “between clarity and despair” with “no element of luck” that Auden emphasizes the crucial existential choice, an act that can only be made willingly and aware of the supra–rationality and absurdity of faith. Following Simeon’s “Meditation,” in his own address titled “The Massacre of the Innocents,” the King Herod is correct when he professes in his frustration the important existential maxim: “can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is.”[51] The Incarnation––a unique event that fails to conform to a linear view of human history and logic––is now referred to by the Narrator as a “Horror,” one whose mere mention leaves Herod, the rational, Ethical man in torment. Herod represents the endless intellectual objection to Christianity. He leverages his speech on rhetorical flourish, effectively arguing that the Incarnation will force knowledge to “degenerate into a riot of subjective visions,” and replace “Reason” with “Revelation.”[52] Yet, Herod’s articulate oration soon disintegrates into frustration and the negation of the self, as he questions in despair:

How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.[53]

While Simeon’s speech contemplates the disorder ensuing from the Fall and ends in redemption through the acceptance of the Incarnation and God’s order, Herod’s recollection of the rational city takes an opposite path, moving from the disorder of anxiety and terminating in the rejection of existential choice and dwelling in despair. Unlike Simeon (Auden’s man of faith who “accepts absolutely”), Herod can only “reject absolutely,” for he insists on residing in the Aesthetic and Ethical stages, despite taking them to all conclusions he can see. Herod fails to account that the Incarnation is paradoxical, that it cannot be interrogated through logic or reason. This effectively reinforces Simeon’s derision of Reason’s “incestuous fixation on her own logic.”[54] For Herod, dwelling in the primacy of intellectual thought can only lead him to inaction. Yet, regardless of these addresses’ successes or failures to understand Christ’s birth, they are remarkably similar in their thorough use of logic. If anything, the distinction in the characters’ results lies in their differences in will and spirit. While the paradox leaves Simeon understanding that there are many things of existence and faith that he will never be able to understand and thus allows him to take the leap, Herod can only despair in the failure of his logic. Ultimately, it is this hubris and despair that allows Herod to commit the atrocity of ordering the massacre of the Israelite children in retaliation.

As argued by George Bahlke, it is necessary that Herod’s soliloquy follows Simeon’s meditation “so that Herod’s argument will be undercut at every point of view by the reader’s knowledge that he is seeing only a part of the situation,” showing that “Although Herod foresees with terrifying accuracy some of the consequences of Christianity, he does not know, or will not accept, the truth which gives all his arguments a peripheral quality.”[55] If Herod’s explanation ultimately fails to present Christ as the regression of civilization, Simeon’s oratorical triumph and narrative connecting the Incarnation with rational civilization’s reconciliation with God precisely demonstrates the importance in renouncing the sole primacy of reason in favor of faith.

Perhaps, as John Fuller argues, Simeon’s “meditation becomes more like sermon” and Herod’s exasperation reads closer to parody rather than self–conscious thought, betraying Auden’s strong didactic intentions.[56] Yet, these characters’ presentations dramatize the necessary fact that in order to accept knowledge that there is an objective truth, it can only be approached subjectively. Herod’s voice may seem like parody, but it inevitably still holds truth, for as he suggests, belief in God and resignation to faith are absurd. As Auden advances throughout the poem, faith is only possible when reason has failed, where we must “see without looking, hear without listening. / breathe without asking,” and can only be done after recognizing the mutual significance of rationality, parody, and submission.[57] Confronted by the angel Gabriel in “The Temptation of Joseph,” Mary’s husband similarly expresses his doubt over this absurdity when confronted by Mary’s miraculous pregnancy:


All I ask is one

Important and elegant proof

That what my Love had done

Was really at your will

And that your will is Love.



No, you must believe:

be silent, and sit still.[58]

Joseph demands a ready–made answer, yet Gabriel demands that Joseph cease to argue, and believe. The Narrator then instructs Joseph on the requirements of his newfound faith, in which he must “behave as if this were not strange at all” and “choose what is difficult all one’s days / As if it were easy.”[59] Joseph does remain doubtful, as manifested by the mocking choruses that encircle his speech, yet despite this turmoil, he decides to believe. Joseph privileges reason, yet does not express the despairing hubris of Herod, and is ultimately able to accept the absurd. Addressing the Three Wise Men, The Star of Nativity similarly describes this precipice between rationality and faith as the Narrator did to Joseph: “Beware. All those who follow me are led / Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no / Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread / Where Knowledge but increases Vertigo.”[60] Indeed, the path is invariably alone and uncertain, but only through its acceptance and with the will of spirit to continue can one find redemption.

At the oratorio’s end, Auden shifts the background from the family’s escape from Egypt to the modern aftermath of Christmas, where “Now we must dismantle the tree” and place “the decorations back into their boxes.”[61] If the Incarnation was previously expressed as unique, it is now repetitive, reiterating across time. Mendelson critiques Auden for this image, for having “made no connection between [the Incarnation] and the specific events of the present.” However, this analysis belies that Auden stresses the Incarnation’s endurance, that it is not limited to a mere discrete event. Just as the thorough use of modern diction and contemporary subjects place For the Time Being in a contemporary context, the reality and significance of Christ exist in spiritual as well as mortal time. The birth of Christ as well as its message of redemption are cosmic as expressed in the closing chorus: “He is the Truth / Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; / You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.”[62] In this ending, Auden reframes traditional biblical verse for the contemporary world, not as one of bliss, but for a world of increasing dread and anxiety. Auden’s ending with the Christ family’s escape is not triumphant, but ambiguous and full of uncertainty, and in this is fitting for its audience. It does not offer a full image of resolution or closure, but offers an invitation to belief. Following For the Time Being, Auden never attempted such an explicit demonstration of Christian subjects, instead choosing to end his argument of Christian existentialism as it began, with a lasting image of human possibility and reconciliation.

Auden (left) with influential English composer Benjamin Britten (right), 1940 by Britten-Pears Foundation
Auden (left) with the influential English composer Benjamin Britten (right), 1940 by the Britten-Pears Foundation

VI. Criticism

Auden has come to hold a peculiar, polarizing image in American and British letters. Once seen as the leading, young poet of his British generation, Auden’s significance continued to be acknowledged as he was later named the implicit Auden of the “Auden Generation” by Samuel Hynes in 1972, a central voice for writers like Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day Lewis. After his expatriation and publication of The Sea in the Mirror and For the Time Being, the critic Louise Bogan declared Auden as having “succeeded Eliot as the strongest influence in American and British poetry” in a 1945 piece in The New Yorker.[63] However, this praise was often mitigated by criticism across the Atlantic.

As Cotkin argues, although many writers turned to religion in the postwar period in America, the zeitgeist would largely remain unsympathetic to any form of religious orthodoxy, including Christian existentialism, despite American intellectuals’ willingness to embrace its language of paradox, irony, and human complexity.[64] Embracing Christian theology, practice, and a Christian view of the nature of man, Auden seemed to have quickly betrayed the New York Intellectuals just as he had appeared to betray the English with his 1939 expatriation.

Many critics identify Auden’s work after the 30s with a decline in his poetic prowess, tied to his reconversion and explicit theological turn; the fact that “an American Auden is emphatically a Christian Auden,” Kirsch notes, is “often unacknowledged [as the] reason for the depreciation of the achievement of his later poetry,” including the critically underappreciated works The Sea and the Mirror and For the Time Being.[65] Yet, while some poets such as Joseph Brodsky remained enamored with Auden’s writing in the 40s, others, such as Philip Larkin and Randall Jarrell soon lost their admiration of the poet after his reconversion and became his strongest detractors. Larkin and Randall Jarrell, both influential 20th century poet–critics in their own right, have exemplified this vein of criticism toward Auden’s theological thought.

In 1945, Jarrell wrote scathingly that “The later Auden is rarely serious: he is either solemn or ingeniously frivolous, like some massive and labyrinthine town clock, that emerges to herald the advent of Eternity.”[66] In another review, he noted that Auden’s morals “are now, like the Law in Luther or Niebuhr, merely a crutch with which to beat us into submission, to force home to us the realization that there is none good but God, that no works can either save us or make us worth saving.”[67] In a similar vein, commenting on a review of Auden’s 1960 collection Homage to Clio, Larkin wrote: “in some way Auden, never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one.”[68] Although these criticisms are crucial in evoking questions shared by many of Auden’s contemporaries regarding Auden’s apparent sermonizing qualities and new poetic intent, these critiques ultimately make acute misjudgments of the poet’s work.

It may have appeared that he had become “unserious,” for Auden never privileged his knowledge as deriving from any religious absolute that could not be interrogated. In this, he was always willing to question his own beliefs and never indulged in writing apologetics. Auden was aware that attempts to understand God were ultimately human projection. This belief, joined by his acerbic wit and willingness to utilize irony in his work, belied that his poetry was the result of many events he experiences by the 40s and an expression of his maturation as a poet and an intellectual, rejecting any static stage of experience.

In a 1966 sermon at Westminster Abbey, Auden stated, “it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals.”[69] Believing that orthodoxy should be expressed through reticence, Auden agreed with Bonheoffer’s assertion that “We ought not to try and be more religious than God Himself.”[70]  Although Auden did once write that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ and went through periods (especially in the late 30s) when he questioned the efficacy of poetry and a poet’s vocation, he had by no means become “unserious,” and these critique fail to take into account the complexity of his later work. Indeed, Auden ultimately believed in action as a necessity, a world where poetry “is not concerned with telling people what to do,” but instead “extending our knowledge of good and evil… leading us to the point where it is possible to make a rational moral choice.”[71] Auden’s poetry never focused on sermonizing, but focused on the hope that his audience may become a bit more aware of morality and the importance of making a choice, one that could only be based on personal reflection and volition alone.

Auden, later in life, cigarette in hand.
Auden, later in life, cigarette in hand.

VII. Conclusion: Later Auden and the Postwar American Landscape

Kierkegaard was a profound, driving force of Auden’s theology and writing in the 40s. Yet by the decade’s end, Auden’s faith in the Christian existentialist had dissipated following his long, 1948 poem The Age of Anxiety. Moreover, Auden’s prose following the late 40s often made explicit criticism of Kierkegaard, largely aimed at the fact that although Kierkegaard privileged the individual soul, he ultimately neglected the body’s significance. Reflecting on the Dane in 1956, Auden wrote that one “might read through the whole of his voluminous works without discovering that human beings are not ghosts but have bodies of flesh and blood.”[72] Auden leveraged his strongest critique a decade later in 1968, writing that Kierkegaard, “like all heretics, conscious or unconscious… is a monodist, who can hear with particular acuteness one theme in the New Testament… but is deaf to its rich polyphony.” Losing focus on the body and thus the universal body’s necessity tied in unity with God, Kierkegaard ultimately fell for another form of Manichaeism. Stressing Kierkegaard’s lapse, Auden notes:

…every man has a second relation to God which is neither unique nor existential: as a creature composed of matter, as a biological organism, every man, in common with everything else in the universe, is related by necessity to the God who created that universe and saw that it was good, for the laws of nature to which, whether he likes it or not, he must confirm are of divine origin.And it is with this body, with faith or without it, that all good works are done.[73]

Auden understood that one could not neglect the body and still understand what it means to be spiritually human. Dissatisfied with Kierkegaardian thought, his apparent dualism, and his negation of physical existence, Auden would begin to write poems that sought to reestablish the body’s relationship with God and its universal relation to others. This change culminated in his sequence “Horae Canonicae,” published in The Shield of Achilles in 1956, a work that points to salvation not through existential dialectics, but through the physical necessity of redemption, the struggle for its embodiment, and the acceptance of Original Sin. While Kierkegaard was a monumental figure for Auden’s work in the 40s, the poet later understood that there were important things that the philosopher did not fully express or understand, and thus decided to follow a different path.

Regardless of his later movement from Kierkegaard, Auden was vital to the philosopher’s growing popularity on American shores. He continued writing about Kierkegaard even after the 40s, with his review of the English translation of Either/Or in 1944, his Introduction to and selection of the Dane’s work to appear in the highly influential anthology The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard in 1952, and his essay “A Knight of Doleful Countenance” in 1968. Although Auden held reservations toward the philosopher in the 50s, his writing on Kierkegaard still showed a great admiration for the Dane’s influence, originality, and genius and their impact upon philosophy and literature. Auden’s poetry of the 40s articulated a new American identity during the war and postwar periods, and his 1948, Pulitzer Prize–winning poem The Age of Anxiety went as far as to give a name for it. Indeed, framed by World War II, the birth of the Atomic bomb, and the Cold War, it was an existential age of anxiety, dread, and uncertainty, and Auden’s label would reign supreme.[74]

Although Christian existentialism was a profound influence on Auden in the 1940s, it would be a mistake to analyze the vast scope of his writing and thinking to any monolithic criterion throughout his lengthy career as a poet. Auden never conformed to any conventional sense of piety or religious orthodoxy, and often disavowed outside attempts to pigeonhole his own faith. This point is captured aptly by Kirsch: “his faith itself cannot be precisely categorized, and he would have distrusted anyone who presumed to do so,” for an attempt “to extract them into an abstract theology, would be to falsify them,” however sincere the attempt may be.[75]

Auden underwent rapid transformations in a short timespan. His childhood wonder of religion was replaced by atheism and secular interests, which were later replaced by an existential theology. By the 50s, Auden arrived at a Catholic-orientated focus on the significance of the body and sin that Kierkegaard’s work had failed to fully account for. Yet, these shifts by no means indicated a terminus in Auden’s theological development. Indeed, Auden found another spiritual mentor in Dietrich Bonheoffer by the 60s, a theologian who stressed universal truths and ritual who the poet would continue to appreciate for the successive decades until his death in 1973. More mature, and certainly a great deal wiser, Auden had made a return to the same liturgical power that had so influenced him as a child, no longer for the excitement it provoked in his young imagination, but for the eternal and universal meanings it was able to express, as the “link between the dead and the unborn,” that represented the cyclical return of man to God and faith.[76]

Auden continually insisted on a rigorous, spiritual self–examination throughout his career, which largely accounted for his willingness to critically examine himself and the beliefs he held, a similar awareness he hoped to inspire through his poetry. Not one to privilege or reject one form of truth in favor of others, Auden affirmed, “every other religion was a revelation, partial or distorted, but real.”[77] Poetry was a critical exercise in affirming his beliefs, an essential act of faith in itself. If anything, the anchoring power of all faith, religion, and belief––and the necessary touchstone in which Auden believed we should all aspire––was that of love. For Auden, loving one’ neighbor held more weight than any singular or collective doctrine. In discussing Auden and the theological changes he underwent, it’s critical to approach his work not as idiosyncratic belief, but as a poet undergoing grand changes, ever–critical of modernity’s disassociation of the realms of critical thought and faith.

Auden’s existential works of the 40s, New Year LetterThe Sea and the Mirror, For the Time Being, and The Age of Anxiety form the moral, imaginative, and spiritual heart of Auden’s poetic corpus. Although many of Auden’s critics largely abide by and favor the image of his oratorical, political stage of the 30s, a comprehensive image of the poet and a study of the fullness of his vision cannot be achieved without the due appraisal of his later work. Ultimately, Auden personified a humble faith, and saw his poetry as a duty to God just as it was to a universal sense of love, awareness, and an unfailing belief in humanity’s potential. Mendelson puts Auden’s faith in striking terms: “Vocation, for Auden, is the most innocent form of love, a voluntary loss of self in an object.”[78] Auden certainly succeeded in his vocation, reflected by the sheer size of his poetic corpus as well as the combined power of his unsurpassed mastery of poetic forms and critical, worldly engagement, a harmony perhaps unmatched by any other poet before him or to come.




[1] Richard Hoggart. Auden: An Introductory Essay (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), 127.

[2] W.H. Auden, “Essay,” in Modern Canterbury Pilgrims: The Story of Twenty-Three Converts and Why They Chose the Anglican Communion, ed. James A. Pike (New York, NY: Morehouse–Gorham, 1956), 33.

[3] Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 5.

[4] Nicholas Jenkins. “Auden in America” in The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden ed. Stan Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 42.

[5] W.H. Auden. Prose, vol III: 1949-1955. ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) 578.

[6] W.H. Auden, “In the Autumn of the Age of Anxiety,” (New York Times Magazine. 8 Aug 1971) Accessed November, 2014.

[7] Auden, Modern Canterbury Pilgrims, 31.

[8] W.H. Auden. Selected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 57.

[9] W.H. Auden, Another Time. (New York, NY: Random House, 1940), 22

[10] W.H. Auden, Forewords and Afterwards, sel. Edward Mendelson (New York, NY: Random House, 1973), 69–70.

[11] Auden, Modern Canterbury Pilgrims, 41.

[12] Ibid.

[13] W.H. Auden, The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, vol. II: 1939–1948 ed. Edward

Mendelson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 109.

[14] Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, xi.

[15] Auden, “A Preface to Kierkegaard” in Prose II, 214.

[16] Niebuhr, Reinhold. Human Nature, 182

[17] Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 42.

[18] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, tr. David Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University, 1944), 412.

[19] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 267.

[20] W.H. Auden, “Introduction” in The Living Thought of Kierkegaard, xix

[21] Auden, Prose II, 214.

[22] Carpenter, 300.

[23] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” in A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 219.

[24] W.H. Auden. Cited in “Auden Outlines Role of Layman in Community,” New York Herald Tribune, 22 October 1951, 22.

[25] Auden, Prose II, 425.

[26] Auden, Collected Poems, 238.

[27] W.H. Auden, Autograph Letter Signed to E.R. Dodds, January 16, 1940, Bodleian Library.

[28] Samuel Hynes, “The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Winter, 1982), 34.

[29] Jenkins, Nicholas. “Auden in America” in The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden ed by Stan Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 42.

[30] Edward Callan. Auden: A Carnival of Intellect, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 173–4.

[31] Auden, Collected Poems, 205.

[32] Auden, Modern Canterbury Pilgrims, 40.

[33] Edward Mendelson, Later Auden, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 130.

[34] Auden, Collected Poems, 220.

[35] Stephen Schuler, The Augustinian Theology of W.H. Auden, (The University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 55.

[36] Auden, Collected Poems, 212.

[37] Ibid., 222.

[38] Ibid., 239.

[39] Carpenter, 297.

[40] Auden, Collected Poems, 242.

[41] Callan, A Carnival of Intellect, 192.

[42] Auden, Collected Poems, 352.

[43] Kierkegaard, The Concluding Unscientific Postscript I, 204.

[44] Auden, Collected Poems, 409.

[45] Ibid., 444.

[46] Arthur Kirsch. “Introduction” to The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ed. by Arthur Kirsch. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), xxi.

[47] Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, 62.

[48] Callan, A Carnival of Intellect 185–6

[49] Auden, Collected Poems, 349.

[50] Ibid., 387.

[51] Ibid., 394

[52] Ibid., 393.

[53] Ibid., 304

[54] Auden, Collected Poems, 389.

[55] George W. Bahlke, The Later Auden: From “New York Letter to About the House, (Rutgers   University Press: New Brunswick), 1970, pp. 127.

[56] John Fuller, W.H. Auden: A Commentary. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 44.

[57] Auden, Collected Poems. 353–4.

[58] Ibid., 364.

[59] Ibid., 365

[60] Ibid., 368.

[61] Ibid., 399.

[62] Ibid., 400.

[63] Louise Bogan, quot. Aidan Wasley, The Age of Auden: postwar Poetryy and the American Scene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 3.

[64] Cotkin, George. Existential America, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 52.

[65] Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, 170.

[66] Randall Jarrell, Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden, ed. by Stephen Burt and Hannah Brooks–Motl (New York, NY: Columbia University Press), 2005, 101.

[67] Jarrell, Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden, 89.

[68] Philip Larkin. “What’s Become of Wystan?” in W.H. Auden: The Critical Heritage (Psychology Press, 1997), 419.

[69] W.H. Auden, quot. Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, xvii.

[70] Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, xix.

[71] Ibid., 5.

[72] Auden, Modern Canterbury Pilgrims, 42.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Cotkin, Existential America, 55.

[75] Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, 137.

[76] W.H. Auden, “Renderings,” New Statesman, February 2, 1973, 165.

[77] Auden, Prose III, 176

[78] Mendelson, Later Auden, 348.



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