Forgetting Ourselves in a Function: W.H. Auden on the Good Society's Friday
Taking up practices that remind us of our finitude, our createdness.
As a child, Wystan Hugh Auden imagined himself as an architect and engineer, more interested in the functions of a lead mine than distinctions in poetic meter. In building this imagined world, he showed an unusually keen sense of pragmatic constraint—at one point, he gave up his aesthetic preference of one type of ore-washing device for another, more efficient one.
This childhood disposition led Auden, when he finally turned to writing, to look beyond the widely-held "vatic" principle—the idea that art was its own reason for being (reflected, for instance, in the increasing independence of galleries). Instead, he worked to retrieve the tradition of the "civil" poet, one who—in both form and content—appealed to a broader public interest and accountability. In critic Edward Mendelson's words, "He put his dazzlingly irresponsible virtuosity to responsible use." As much as Auden was drawn to what makes for a good poem, he was just as intent on the form of a good society.
In his major work Horae Canonicae, composed between 1949 and 1954, Auden explores the complexities in the project of civilization. As a significant aspect of this, he tries to show his readers the inextricable link between our best-intentioned acts of cultural creation and the anxiety that leads us to overstep our finite boundaries. In this poem, he sets a seemingly average day in the life of a city within the Good Friday story—or, more specifically, its liturgy.
Although the characters in the piece show vocational integrity and high moral ambition, they find themselves unwittingly participating in a crucifixion. This may seem unlikely, but remember that Caiaphas and Pilate were only making the best of the civic duty presented to them on that fatal day. Auden would have us recognize that any pursuit of the good society must be framed—whether or not we acknowledge it—by a liturgy that recalls the event of the cross.
The Knots of Time
The poem's Latin title and seven sub-headings frame the work with a long-standing form of Christian liturgy. The seven-part structure of the Canonical Hours is based in a prayer from Psalm 119 ("seven times a day I praise you"), setting a script for embodied prayer to frame all other daily actions: Prime at six o'clock in the morning, Terce at nine, Sext at noon, Nones at three in the afternoon, Vespers at sunset, Compline at nine, and Lauds at the next sunrise. But the poem is no ritualized set of prayer services—at least not in the way we would typically conceive of them. Rather, Auden portrays the events in the day of a "secular" city as forms of prayer in their own right.
The larger poem begins with the word "simultaneously," cueing us to the complex strata of times in Auden's imagination: though the poem takes place in a twenty-four hour period (from dawn, to dusk, to new dawn), there is much more going on with time. For us to retrieve the older notion of time that Auden is using, we have to work at it—for, as philosopher Charles Taylor observes, contemporary western culture "flattens" time, making it correspond to bare, simple chronology. This is in contrast to an older way of thinking about time in what Taylor calls "kairotic knots," in which events that may be centuries apart are seen in a sort of concurrence. In this perspective, Good Friday 1998 would be "closer" to the original day of the crucifixion than it would be to a mid-summer's day in 1997. The immediacy of the crucifixion account, which unfolds as though it were happening anew in the poem's unnerving modern setting, is a creative retrieval of this sense of time.
The Self-Made City
In Prime, prayers performed in the early morning, the poem's narrator is found in the act of waking, a state Auden likens to the innocence of Adam. Agency is only just stirring—"the will has still to claim / This adjacent arm as my own"— and the memory's "routine of praise and blame" has yet to begin. We wake after the Fall, though, and so what is given is no divine breath of life:
I draw breath; that is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death.
That death is the debt required of every person for his or her part in the Fall, that primal grasp for autonomy (remember how Auden is working with the concurrence of times). But the poem then turns its attention to the killing of another— the unforeseen goal to which this urban project tends in its fallen state. This is hinted at when the will and body have aligned by the end of Prime and the speaker then claims his "historical share of care / For a lying self-made city." These lines are a reference to Augustine's The City of God, which distinguishes between two intermingled social bodies and how they pursue the heavenly and earthly cities—depending on the form of their loves. The earthly city is motivated by self-love that tends towards contempt of God, however well-governed it may be. As we will see, this characterization suits the participants of Auden's Friday.
The falsehood and self-focus of the earthly city can also be seen in the constricted prayers in the mid-morning setting of Terce, which would be laughably petty if they weren't so representative. After introducing the figures of the hangman, judge, and poet—respective incarnations of Justice, Law, and Truth—their private liturgies are introduced: "Now each of us / Prays to an image of his image of himself." The unambitious content of those prayers matches their diminished object:
"Let me get through this coming day
Without a dressing down from a superior,
Being worsted in a repartee,
Or behaving like an ass in front of the girls."
This sort of present-mindedness shows an aversion to the ways the lives of others might impinge on one's own—and this, by those who are supposed to hold authority. On this particular day, that prayer is to be answered, as the person most offensively and inconveniently in the way will, in fact, be executed. This figure, named after this prayer as "our victim," is intolerable for the privileged knowledge he holds that they do not. He knows that these very prayers will be answered: "the machinery of the world will function" and, ultimately, "We shall have had a good Friday."
The irony, of course, is that the figures in the poem do not pick up the reference to this focally significant date in the Christian calendar, seeing it only as another "good day" without particular history or telos. Auden not only shows these characters' complicity and ignorance, but also uncovers the reader's own—he was, after all, the type to ask others, "Have you been read by any good books lately?"
Looking ahead to Vespers for a moment, we see Auden extend a sense of culpability in this event to both the Arcadian, who looks back to a paradisal Eden, and the Utopian, working towards the perfected New Jerusalem (Auden tended to the former). The two types predictably irritate each other, bringing to mind not only their policy differences but their common victim
on whose immolation (call him Abel,
Remus, whom you will, it is one Sin
Offering) arcadias, utopias, our dear old
bag of a democracy are alike founded.
For without a cement of blood (it must
be human, it must be Innocent) no
secular wall will safely stand.
In this final statement, Auden revisits his recurrent interest in the way civil order is regularly undergirded by violence. Any act of violence is in view here—from the proxy battles of the Cold War (at its onset during the poem's composition), simultaneously through to that singular historical event of the crucifixion. What acts of violence, the poem asks, might our own pursuit of the good society need to recall, and where does that place us in the event of the cross?
That Eye-on-the-Object Look
In the Sext portion of the poem, Auden begins his well-known aesthetic appreciation of the craftsperson's focus, proclaiming the beauty of "that eye-on-the-object look." He continues, as we would expect from a "civil" poet, to say that we owe them the practical outcome of the very "notion of the city"—a social architecture that transcends and frames our instinctual drives. Auden specifically names the authoritative pronouncements of the army general, the bacteriologist, and the prosecutor, along with our debt to them: "You may not like them much / (who does?) but we owe them / basilicas, divas, / dictionaries, pastoral verse, / the courtesies of the city." They are the ones responsible for the welcome disenchantment of the world, overcoming our being "tethered for life to some hut village, / afraid of the local snake / or the local ford demon."
But there is also a suspicious subtext at play along with this appreciation. In building monuments to the "nameless heroes" such as "the first flaker of flints / who forgot his dinner, / the first collector of sea-shells / to remain celibate," we are tempted to overlook a worrisome pattern of neglect. However innocuous these pursuits seem, our creaturely drives—eating and sex, in these instances—are being ignored. While it is good to move beyond homage to the "appetitive goddesses," there is a disguised danger in the new allegiances. St. Barbara is, after all, the patron of artillery makers, and the poem has already begun hinting at a death for which these city-builders are agents.
In these hints about a worrisome mixed impulse in those "forgetting themselves in a function," Auden draws from his friend and theological mentor Reinhold Niebuhr, who observed the way human creativity was intermingled with a destructive anxiety about our own finitude. "The two are inextricably bound together," Niebuhr writes, "by reason of man being anxious both to realize his unlimited possibilities and to overcome and to hide the dependent and contingent character of his existence." We must recognize that when we appreciate vocational integrity and its immediate cultural effect, we are acknowledging neither the origin nor the outcome of this inevitable anxiety. That larger, more exacting task will require a careful mining of our cultural memory.
Memory and the Youngest Day
The crucifixion is not directly portrayed in the poem, occurring sometime between Sext and Nones, noon and three. Sext, having celebrated the vocations of the city-builders, concludes with the gathering of a chillingly amoral "crowd," an inclusive mass "which does whatever is done." By Nones, after the execution, "The faceless many who always / Collect when any world is to be wrecked . . . Have all melted away" when a dreadful silence falls and the narrator's memory of the deed just performed is already fading. At Compline, nearing the end of the poem, where the body prepares for sleep, this forgetfulness has taken over:
. . . now a day is its past,
Its last deed and feeling in, should come
The instant of recollection
When the whole thing makes sense: it
comes, but all
I recall are doors banging,
Two housewives scolding, an old man
A child's wild look of envy,
Actions words, that could fit any tale,
And I fail to see either plot
Or meaning; I cannot remember
A thing between noon and three.
The narrator of the poem appears oblivious not only to the execution itself, in which he was complicit, but to the larger framework of time in which he participates. As a liturgy, Compline would include confession, stirring the memory to encounter both divine judgment and grace, but the forgetful narrator has only fragmented images of consumption in the city with no overarching plot.
Although there is a tragic inevitability about the crucifixion as the earthly city's culminating act, the poem does not end without a note of hope. From the earlier satisfaction in being "right" and the victim's offence at knowing what the citybuilders do not, the tone of Compline shifts to a prayer of marked unknowing. As a form of confession emerges, it proves to be so bold as to suggest that poets, having been previously demoted to the banal vocational stature of the hangman and judge, share an even baser need:
Can poets (can men in television)
Be saved? It is not easy
To believe in unknowable justice
Or pray in the name of a love
Whose name one's forgotten.
This chastened tone acknowledges that all who would presume to act on behalf of Truth or Justice are only working in approximations. Seeing these sorts of attempts as ultimate, however enriching to a perceived common good, is to take a role in the death at the centre of the poem.
Having looked back to the cross, the liturgy next looks ahead to the final act of justice and restoration with an aspiration that can only be prayed:
Us in the youngest day when all are
Shaken awake, facts are facts,
(And I shall know exactly what happened
Today between noon and three)
Along with appealing to a greater authority in sparing us from the judgment to come, the prayers next begin to seek a kind of civic reconciliation. This is extended as the poem moves into Lauds, Auden's intentional placement of the next morning's prayers at the end of the piece to intimate a renewed sociality on the other side of Good Friday. "God bless the Realm, God bless the people," it states, in words carefully chosen as a contrast to both the impersonal authorities and the crowd that carried out the crucifixion.
The Lost Art of Being a Creature
In an expression congruent with Auden's critique, Rowan Williams observes that our society's aversion to our identities as creatures is deeply ingrained within us. Whether in political or religious fundamentalism or "in the obsessive games of national security and technological short cuts to gratification," he remarks, "being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art."
Art requires practice, of course, and a good place to begin again would be the spoken and embodied prayers given to us in the Christian liturgy. For the good of society, we might intentionally take up these practices that remind us of our finitude, turning our anxiety towards a rightly-ordered love of the creator and that city which only he can achieve.Subscribe