Artifice and Self-Consciousness
in The Sea and the Mirror

LUCY S. McDIARMID and JOHN McDIARMID

Auden’s “guess,” in 1966, was that The Orators sprang from an “unconscious motive… to exorcise certain tendencies in myself by allowing them to run riot.” In similar language Auden has written of Goethe:

The work of a young writer-Werther is the classic example-is
sometimes a therapeutic act. He finds himself obsessed by certain
ways of thinking and feeling of which his instinct tells him he must
be rid before he can discover his authentic interests and sympathies,
and the only way he can be rid of them forever is by surrendering
to them…. Having gotten the poison out of his system, the writer
turns to his true interests….

In Auden’s own career expulsion of the poison does not occur only in The Orators; for him, repudiation of “certain ways of thinking and feeling” is almost a ritual. His long poems, especially, are often exorcisms of the imagination. In The Age of Anxiety, a night of intoxicated excursions to idyllic landscapes and remote islands ends with the return to a drab New York in the middle of World War II. Abandoning fantasy, the characters are “reclaimed by the actual world where time is real and in which, therefore, poetry can take no interest.” In so recent a poem as “City Without Walls” the same pattern recurs. A neurotic voice drones on in insistent alliterative lines for twenty-one stanzas, rehearsing the horrors of “Megalopolis,” before daybreak ushers in the ordinary, a new voice whose “Go to sleep now for God’s sake” silences the self-indulgent

From Contemporary Literature 16, no. 3 (Summer 1975). Copyright © 1975 by the Board of
Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. University of Wisconsin Press, 1975. Originally
entitled “Artifice and Self-Consciousness in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror”

-69-

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W.H. Auden
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Modern Critical Views ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor’s Note vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Some Notes on the Early Poetry 7
  • Auden at Sixty 13
  • The Pattern of Personae 21
  • Auden after the Thirties 47
  • Auden, Hopkins, and the Poetry of Reticence 55
  • Only Critics Can’t Play 63
  • Artifice and Self-Consciousness in the Sea and the Mirror 69
  • An Oracle Turned Jester 91
  • The Rake’s Progress- An Operatic Version of Pastoral 101
  • Auden’s Revision of Modernism 111
  • The Orators- Portraits of the Artist in the Thirties 121
  • The Romantic Tradition in the Age of Anxiety 135
  • Disenchantment with Yeats- From Singing-Master to Ogre 161
  • Chronology 177
  • Contributors 181
  • Bibliography 183
  • Acknowledgments 185
  • Index 187
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