Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Love and Other Gods: Personification and Volition in Auden

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Love and Other Gods: Personification and Volition in Auden

Article excerpt

Around 1940, just after his move to America, a crucial distinction enters W. H. Auden's writing: a bifurcation of love into Eros and Agape. Eros, characterized by Auden as "the Platonic concept of love," involves "a desire to get possession of something one lacks," while Agape, "the Christian concept," entails "a reciprocal relation"--universal neighborly love as opposed to the romantic exclusivity of couplehood (Prose 228). Whereas up until 1939 the single word "love" proliferates in Audens writings as a means of designating everything from raw animal lust to the highest of spiritual attachments, throughout the 1940s he rarely evokes love without funneling it into one of these two hierarchized categories, one essentially selfish and the other social in character. His most precise statement of the terms of this distinction comes in his 1941 review of Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World, where--while clearly valorizing Agape over Eros--he insists that the relationship between them is not dichotomous, but rather transfigurative, with Eros becoming Agape through a "dialectical relation":

   For Eros, surely, is "amor sementa in voi d'ogni vertute, e d'ogni
   operazion che merta pene" the basic will to self-actualization
   without which no creature can exist, and Agape is that Eros mutated
   by Grace, a conversion, not an addition, the Law fulfilled, not the
   Law destroyed. (139)

The quotation from Dantes Purgatorio (as translated by Jean and Robert Hollander) asserts that "Love must be the seed in you of every virtue, and every deed that merits punishment" (351), and through it Auden implies that unmutated love, or Eros, gives rise to punishable deeds, while its mutation into Agape births virtue. As the agent of this conversion, "Grace" remains mysterious, its origins unstated. One might readily assume, of course, that Auden simply means that only through an openness to God's benevolence can our solipsistic desires be infused with altruism, transfiguring erotic lust to agapic neighborliness. With his own migration back to the Anglican communion by this time complete, it would make sense for him to demand of love a similar conversion to communal ideals.

As anyone familiar with Auden's 1930s writing knows, however, his concern with love as a sociopolitical force far predates his conversion to Christianity. For in his work throughout the decade, Auden consistently attempts to reconcile a conception of love as a complex of private appetitive drives with a more communally inflected notion of love as the binding force that must lie at the root of any lasting solidarity. (1) So while his foregrounding the transfigurative power of Grace no doubt reflects his return to the church, it also shows Auden adopting a new solution to the problems of volition and responsibility that had haunted his every inquiry into love throughout the previous decade. Is love a force that bends us to its will, or is it within our control? Is it Love, or simply love? This essay proceeds from the premise that implicit in such metaphysical questions--central to his poems throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s--are more strictly poetic questions regarding the nature, uses, and ethics of personification, a trope he employed in this period more often and with greater ostentation than any other modern poet, and with which he highlighted his speakers' ambivalencies about volition: on the one hand they ardently desire that love might prove itself a benevolent force in the world, binding us inexorably together, helping to usher in a state of long-hoped-for reconciliation; on the other hand they strive to escape responsibility, to cast themselves as helpless prisoners of love, unaccountable for any emotional destruction they may suffer or inflict. Furthermore, in light of how persistently Auden deployed a personified love throughout the 1930s to explore these ambivalencies, his equally persistent division of love in the subsequent decade takes on a significance beyond its religious aspects. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.