The New York Sun runs a little piece today by Eric Ormsby on W.H Auden, a notice of the publication of Auden’s Collected Prose, Volume III: 1949-1955 .

It is a nice summary of the book, as one would expect from Ormsby, but along the way it quotes the last poem Auden wrote, the 1973 “Archaeology.” And I was reminded just how frustrating Auden’s quietism can be. The quoted lines run:

From Archaeology
one moral, at least, may be drawn,
to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.

OK, so it’s nice, and Audenesque, and though he would have changed such filler phrases as “to wit,” it represents much in his thought. But much of that much is just wrong. Auden’s retreat to what he called “the Great Good Place” can give him an admirable clarity:

The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie.

And it can give him a despicable muddiness. After reading such famous lines in Auden’s “Spain, 1937” as it as History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon and Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death; / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder , George Orwell cried that they manage only to combine “the gangster and the pansy.” “Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled,” Orwell later added. “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

And there both the clarity and the muddiness are in “Archaeology.” History . . . / being made, as it is, / by the criminal in us —well, yes, you know what he means. And goodness is timeless —yes, there, too, you know what he means. But put them together and what do you have? A world where grace and virtue and right action are impossible, where they dwell altogether elsewhere than this messy human world.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently and very fast.

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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