Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Turn Her Desperate Longing to Love": W. H. Auden, Denis De Rougemont, and Lyric Love Poetry

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Turn Her Desperate Longing to Love": W. H. Auden, Denis De Rougemont, and Lyric Love Poetry

Article excerpt

It is widely acknowledged that W. H. Auden's poetry underwent significant changes during and after his return to Christianity in 1940, though both Edward Mendelson and Alan Jacobs have done much to explain exactly how Auden changed after his conversion and to show that those changes were not as abrupt or drastic as earlier critics had supposed. As both Mendelson and Jacobs reveal, many of Auden's post-conversion "changes" are traceable to his pre-conversion concerns, and Mendelson in particular traces the ways in which Auden's views on history and religion continued to develop in the thirty years following his return to the Anglican communion. But many critics are still sympathetic to Philip Larkin's famous complaint that the young, quasi-Marxist Auden based his poetry on experience while the older, Christian Auden based his poetry on books (125). The statement is too broad to be accurate--Auden's poetry had always been based at least partly on books, whether his early readers realized it or not--but Larkin is right to imply inadvertently that a reader of Auden's poems benefits from knowing which books Auden thought important when he wrote each poem. Auden read several important books shortly before and during his return to Christianity, including Charles Williams' The Descent of the Dove, Charles Norris Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture, Augustine's Confessions, and the works of Pascal and Kierkegaard (see Auden, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose 2: 248; and Mendelson, Later Auden 124-27), and the influence of several of these books on Auden has been ably traced by Mendelson, John Fuller, and others. However, not even Mendelson has sufficiently explored Auden's heavy reliance on Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World in the lyric love poetry he wrote in the 1940s; and while Rougemont's influence on Auden waned in the 1950s, Rougemont was in large part responsible for showing Auden that the tension between erotic and altruistic loves might possibly be resolved. In this article I wish to examine the ways in which Auden used Rougemont's ideas about love in his poems and to explain why, after about 1950, Auden largely stopped referring to Rougemont and wrote comparatively fewer love poems than he had written in the 1930s and 1940s.

Some of Auden's best-known poems are love poems. From his first major poetic efforts in his 1928 verse play Paid on Both Sides, which involves a struggle between family loyalty and marital love, to his lyrics of the late 1930s such as "Lullaby" and "As I Walked Out One Evening," to post-conversion poems like "In Praise of Limestone" and "The Love Feast," Auden's poetry repeatedly returns to the conflicts between different kinds of love. His early poetry is often concerned with the troubled relationship between friendship and sex, and after his return to Christianity, the question of how God relates to them both vexes and energizes his poetry. From the beginning, Auden did implicitly recognize a difference between the selfish love epitomized by sexual desire and the altruistic love epitomized in friendship between equals, and his poetry from the 1930s exhibits continual regret that the two forms of love never manage to coexist permanently. Monroe Spears plausibly argues that Auden's post-conversion views on love changed significantly in the 1940s, during which time "Auden shifts from this initial tendency to regard Eros and Agape as wholly distinct (in the manner of Kierkegaard, Barth, Nygren, and extreme Protestants in general) to the view that they are conjoinable in the Catholic concept of Caritas" ("The Divine Comedy of W. H. Auden" 60). Spears had also claimed in an earlier work that "The classic Protestant exposition of the radical distinction between Agape and Eros is Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros... the Roman Catholic position is that the two are united in Caritas.... Auden's attitude has always been Protestant in this respect" (The Poetry of W. H. Auden 164n). …

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