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April 03, 1940 - Image 3

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The Michigan Daily, 1940-04-03

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PERSPECTIVES

PeThne

GflLLRNTRY IN HELL by John flrthos

ON THE POETRY OF W. H. AUDEN,
AND THE LECTURE, "A SENSE OF
ONE'S AGE."
An address presented to the Language
and Literature Section of the Michi-
gan Academy of Arts and Sciences.
SUPPOSE that talent is merely a
word by which we describe an artist's
capacity to survive the confusion
which seems to be the original condi-
tion of human existence. It is the facul-
ty through which people of special sensi-
tivity order words or sounds or colors,
and it is like the faculty in all of us that
orders our experience in such a way
that we are thereby able to discern the
significance of our living. It is the
means of relating the worlds in which
we live, of desire and fear, and sleeping
and waking, to the values we hold. And
for poets, though we are not certain it
is an active or passive state in which
passionate conceptions order their de-
sires and thoughts, talent is perhaps the
ultimate vitality, the last strength, the
stamina through which a conception
is held to the point where it attains the
proper form for its expression and is
the moans of communicating truth.
And just as an individual finds signifi-
cance in discovering the pattern through
which he is able most fittingly to order
his existence, the conceptions of an
artist become significant and beautiful
because of the form that is given them.
And even as a person's life is not to
be fully understood through physiologi-
cal or chemical knowledge alone, the
subject of a work of art may partly be
explained by the philosophy and char-
acter and interests of the artist, but
(the form of-his work is not to be com-
pletely accounted for in this way. We
may translate a poem into philosophy,
but there still remains the fact that
what we have is a poem and not merely
an essay in philosophy. Nor is it only
the conscious or tnconscious revelation
of some emotion the poet is deeply con-
cerned with. Psychology will explain
a poem no more than philosophy, and
though a poem may uncover in its story,
for example, a desire or fear of perhaps
unconscious significance for the poet,
yet the story is consciously constructed;
and this structure, this form, is the wit-
ness of the poet's consciousness, and the
measure of his success in conceiving the
truth that gives his passions and be-
liefs significance for his living. The
structure of the poem gives what he
says a life that is its own explanation
finally.
Mr. Auden's visit made clear how
necessary it is to understand the rela-
tionship between the world and art and
a man's beliefs. His lecture on the
sense of one's age was concerned with
two things chiefly, the nearly hopeless
anarchy of modern life and the desola-
tion of mind which he says is the single
condition of existence in that anarchy.
His conclusion was that only in these
recognitions is sincerity possible for the
individual, and that poets, whose mater-
ial is the world in which they live and
the state of mind with which the world
has presented them, inay write only in
the acceptance of an all but complete
isolation.
His criticism of the disintegration of
our society seems to me too sweeping, and
I think he oversimplified such causes as
he mentioned. It is true that the ma-
chine age has done much to separate
us from our neighbors, and we may see
this in the passengers on the commuters'
trains, buried in their newspapers, not
speaking to each other. It is also true
that for many people there is no work,
no life of action where the mind needs
the full coordination of the body, as
we may see in many office-workers and
some machinists. But these generaliza-
tions are ultimately too easy. Men work
together and bring their work home,

Woman At The Bar .... By Tristan Meinecke

and their families are proud to know
of what they have done in the shops,
And an accountant may have as much
appreciation of the values of human ex-
istence as a cabinet-maker, who perhaps
uses more muscles. Nor are the necessi-
ties of everyone alike. But the essential
point is that while many patterns of
social existence have been broken down,
new patterns are being created. There
are, for example, the worlds of the all-
night buses, of trade-unions, of the rail-
road conductors and brakemen whose
communities are tightly knit in small
cars that happen to have a neighbor-
hood of half a continent.
If Mr. Auden's criticism was exagger-
ated, then, if it was distorted, he was
nevertheless right in acknowledging
the importance of distintegration at the
present time. It was his point that now-
adays everyone is aware of this chaos,
and that it is only with and by this
knowledge that men are to live, in the
acceptance of chaos. Consequently an
individual's integrity now survives only
as that person admits his isolation, in
the knowledge that there no longer exist
those bonds that in the past have been
the means through which people have
lived together. A sense of loneliness be-
comes the standard of measuring the
sincerity of one's beliefs. This state of
mind, he said, outlining the Romantic
tradition, has been true' for poets for
one hundred and fifty years, and is now
true for everyone. Not only intellectuals,
but, to use his examples, milkmen,
tradesmen, waiters, are aware of no tra-
ditions, no conventions at all that are
able to hold their interest and loyalty,
no ties to make an individual conscious
that he belongs to a community. And
it is clear here, I think, that he was not
merely over-simplifying, but that he
found loneliness tolerable, and for one
reason or another is satisfied with iso-
lation. And this means that he is identi-

fying the despair of an individual mind
with the anarchy of the world.
In some ways men have always been
solitary, and ordinarily much of life is
spent in trying to find some community
of existence, with people or gods, al-
though perhaps it is more sound to say,
as they do of the Old Testament, that
life is not a record of man's search for
God but of God's search for man, man
attempting to respond to the calls made
upon him. But Mr. Auden's solitude is
not the Christian one. "The ana-chy
that follows from his belief that there
are no binding conventions in the modern
world is not the same as that of the early
Christians, where the covenants of soci-
ety were formed in the love of God and
of each individual which was innate
in everyone. For Mr. Auden there is no
integrating belief through which individ-
uals may recognize and speak to each
other. On the contrary, satisfaction is
only to be found in the knowledge that
one is unique, and in being pr aid of
one's isolation from the lives of the
people we live with. And this, I thiuk,
explains what he means by his phrase
'negative inversion.' Hurt unjustly by
the world one turns in upon onself, and
discovers that there is no significance to
one's suffering, such is the power of
injustice, and no use to which suffering
can be put, no wisdom to make it a
source of strength. We see often, in
Mr. Auden as well as in others, that dis-
couragement may be salutary, but this is
despair, and in these terms despair is
nothing but the desire to be alone.
Following out this conclusion we may
see a certain pattern of thouglt that still
remains in his hope that poetry shall be
a means of communication. I know of
no words in regard to his attitude here
that are quite so satisfactoryas the the-
ological ones, and I can only think of
Satan in the Divine Comedy, whose capi-
tal sin was pride,.and who, so his solitary

torment, was fascinated w t ie intric-
cies of his hopelessness, and in that way
drawn remorselessly to woit cut the
natural forms of his hatred I should
think that when he had foewed out all
these tangles with passion that would
necessarily-decrease-since despair must
sap the strength of that by which it
lives-his desire to propagate confusion
through the legends of his wit 'gould also
die. And like a failing poet, his lies
would lose their cunning. His talent
would decrease with the weakening of
his vitality that followed from denying
the values by which he had lived origin-
ally. And for illustration there are
some lines of Mr. Auden that are terri-
fying:
Hell is neither here nr there
Hell is not anywhere
Hell is hard to bear.
Here sense and structure ae alike dis-
solving as they affirm despa:r
The point is, I think, that talent sur-
vives with life, and life in poetry de-
pends upon the orderly esotence c#'
human hopes, the faith in c acommon-
ness, in the way we ins-t on sharing
our admirations, in caring about other
people, in working with other people,
which is the way, I hi.k we have o
making peace with ourses. For woE'
know actually that there is blili health.
in us (if I may combat the esoteric with
the obvious), and we are capable o
recognizing in the lives arod us ths
true ring of noble minds, as Longinuo.
called it, recognizing ourselves in others,.
'We still know that life needs to be sus-
tained, and that poetry, as a kind o
order, is a witness of the excellence by
which people live, the bright strengt h
that is both good and beautifl.
It is with some such words as thess.
that we need to speak of life and poetry
together. If talent is the means of order-
ing thought and feeling, that order wit.
conform to its subject. If it is the
sense of our age that is the subject o
our poetry, as individuals whose language
is'filled with the images of the world we
live in, the way in which we accept that
world is also part of the subject matter,.
And finally, the lucky form we find that
is true to our living as wel as to the
subject affirms and strengthens the
qualities in life we live by.
If we devote ourselves to tiroiting or
denying-il gran rifiuto-what has been
of profit to us in clarifying our percep-
tions and fulfilling those capacitie
through which we would ordinarily come
to maturity, sooner or later the form
which expresses our denial 'aol also dis-
integrate.
Only the challenge to oat will,
Our pride in learning any skill,
Sustains our effort to be i.
Our ingenuity of expression, of rhetoic
or metre or image, will diffuse as our
strength is diffused. A poem is such
through its economy, through the simple
necessity in which rhythm and sound
and meaning exist together. This order-
ing comes about through rigorous devo-
tion to what an individual knows and
understands about the virtues of exist-
ence. There is something that may b
called a center to everyone' living-
what used to be called the heart-by
which we learn to face all 'he implica-
tions of finality and hope that belong
to our experience. In ths acceptance
we are able to lead lives according to
patterns which deny none of the sign-
ficances for either health or isease in
the humanity we know. Not that chance
or fate does not occasionaly provide
its blessing. but that sincerity is indis-
pensable. For ultimately the harmon:
of art refers to harmony n life.
If we despair of our lives, pretendir-
that despair is good, our insincerity er.
(Continued on Page 10)

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