A Christian refutation of Utopian dreams of ultimate fulfillment

W.H. Auden’s “Vespers”: A Christian refutation of Utopian dreams of ultimate fulfillment

Curtis, Jan

The past is not to be taken seriously (let the dead bury their dead) nor the future (take no thought for the morrow), only the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional content but for its historic decisiveness. (Now is the appointed time.)

W. H. Auden, “Postscript: The Frivolous & the Earnest”

Horae Canonicae is W. H. Auden’s poetic hermeneutic of the Divine Office which was published as a sequence of seven poems in The Shield of Achilles in 1955.’ As the official prayer of the Roman Catholic Church, the Office strikes its roots deeply down into the Judeo-Christian tradition of prayer and worship. Home Canonicae derives its shape and rhythm from the temporal divisions of the Canonical Hours that for centuries have been chanted and spoken both communally and privately. The order of specific prayers in the perpetual round of the Hours follows the pattern of our daily activities from sunrise to sunset and integrates the recurring cycle of birth, disintegration, and death which characterizes temporal existence. In The Shape of the Liturgy, which Auden read and admired, Dom Gregory Dix shows that the Divine Office developed from a desire to sanctify time by integrating work and worship. The pattern of the day’s work and activity is affirmed in terms of the events of salvation history.2 In this affirmation of history as a dimension of God’s presence, the Divine Office dramatizes the paradoxical nature of our existence as simultaneously finite and free. The cyclic pattern of the liturgical calendar mirrors the limitations of finite creatures bound by necessity. The liturgy, however, is not enclosed by its own necessity but open to the ultimate freedom manifested in the historical event of the Cross of Good Friday. Auden’s adaptation of the Divine Office dramatizes his Christian understanding of our nature and destiny as free but finite men and women “mocked by unmeaning” and driven to redeem the “Time Being” from insignificance.

The setting of Horae Canonicae is Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion in the liturgical year. The sequence of the poems is guided by the Canonical Hours beginning with prime (6:00 a.m.), which prepares us for the coming day, and ending with lauds the next day (3:00 a.m.), a jubilant resurrection prayer which celebrates redemption and the wonders of creation. Each of the Canonical Hours re-enacts an aspect of the Christian conception of salvation history. In Horae Canonicae Auden follows the liturgical drama of salvation, beginning with the awakening of humanity represented by Adam in “Prime” and concluding with the blessing and thanksgiving of “Lauds.” The sequence as a whole is haunted by the crucifixion recalled in the epigraph, “immolatus vicerit,” from the hymn “Pange lingua” sung during the solemn procession of the Blessed Sacrament on Good Friday. “Prime” prepares for “the dying / Which the coming day will ask” (476); “Terce” ironically assures us that “by sundown / We shall have had a Good Friday” (477); while “Sext” struggles to make sense of “this death,” “this dying” (478, 480). “Nones” cannot forget the knowledge that “wherever / The sun shines, brooks run, books are written, / There will also be this death” (481). It is this death that secures the walls of the earthly city in “Vespers,” but in “Compline” becomes the center of a theological dance which “moves in perichoresis, / Turns about the abiding tree” of the crucifixion (485). Horae Canonicae remembers the crucifixion as central to a Christian philosophy of history and ultimate fulfillment. To define this philosophy Auden re-shapes the age-old material of the Divine Office which, in the course of a single day, represents the events of sacred history in the eternal now of liturgical anamnesis.

Of the seven poems in Horae Canonicae “Vespers” foregrounds the illusions of utopian and arcadian, hence non-Christian, visions of ultimate fulfillment. In “Dingley Dell & the Fleet,” an essay from The Dyer’s Hand, Auden describes utopia and arcadia in terms of our romantic desire for the “Happy Place” where evil and suffering are unknown. Such dreams of the Happy Place are of two kinds: the Edens and the New Jerusalems. “Eden is a past world in which the contradictions of the present world have not yet arisen; New Jerusalem is a future world in which they have at last been resolved” (Auden, Dyer’s Hand 409).3 Between the Arcadian who dreams of Eden and the Utopian who dreams of New Jerusalem is a “characterological gulf as unbridgeable as that between Blake’s Prolifics and Devourers” (Dyer’s Hand 409). “Vespers” dramatizes this gulf, but, at the same time, foregrounds what both visions have in common. The poem is spoken by the Arcadian who understands himself and his anti-type, the Utopian, in terms of their contrasting and irreconcilable dreams of the Happy Place. “Neither speaks,” says the Arcadian, “What experience could we possibly share?” (“Vespers” 483). The question leads to the unsettling conclusion that both the Arcadian and Utopian are “loyal to different fibs” (484). “Vespers” explores the nature of that fib.

Arcadian nostalgia for a paradise lost in the past and utopian expectations of future happiness are rejected as illusory in Auden’s anti-romantic and Christian understanding of ultimate fulfillment. In “The Age of Anxiety,” one of Auden’s major poems of the 1940s, ultimate fulfillment is fixed neither on a mythical past nor on “tidy utopias of external spring,” but on the dialectic of human choice that characterizes our historical existence (“The Age of Anxiety” 355). “Vespers” contradicts the pretensions of arcadian and utopian myths of fulfillment in terms of the Divine Office and in particular the themes and expectations associated with the liturgical form of evening prayer. The Divine Office is a liturgy of time which celebrates a divine breakthrough in history. By integrating the temporal rhythms of our daily lives, the Office affirms the limitations of finitude and contingency while at the same time exulting in our inherently human capacity for freedom and transcendence. The Arcadian and Utopian of “Vespers,” like the fugitives of “The Age of Anxiety,” fear the “world from which their journey has been one long flight” (391). They are determined to deny the ambiguity of finite existence by seeking refuge in dreams of self-transcendence. The Cross in the Good Friday setting of Horae Canonicae appears in “The Age of Anxiety” as the “cross of the moment” from which the fugitives take flight:

We would rather be ruined than changed,

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die. (407)

The cross of being in time is the central problem of “Vespers.” What unnerves the Arcadian and Utopian and momentarily shatters their dreams of escaping history is the remembrance of the Paschal meal of evening prayer presided over by a powerless Messiah who experiences the ambiguities of history and falls into the abyss of death. The liturgical remembrance of this evening hour affirms the agonizing paradox of our existence as bound by finitude but boundlessly free. The wise men of Auden’s Christmas Oratorio “For the Time Being” are driven by a similar struggle to bear responsibility for the present moment while at the same time following the star of a transcending desire:

With envy, terror, rage, regret,

We anticipate or remember but never are.

To discover how to be living now

Is the reason I follow this star. (285)

“Now is the appointed time.” “To discover how to be living now” in the midst of ambiguity and dizzying freedom is the reason Auden subjects arcadian nostalgia and utopian anticipation of future harmony to the historical event of a forsaken, crucified Christ. The broken Messiah of Good Friday shatters the pretensions of finite creatures seeking to escape the cross of the moment by claiming an essential perfection.

Utopian and arcadian visions of ultimate fulfillment are forms of Romanticism which Auden describes in another context as a rejection of the “paradoxical, dialectic nature of freedom.”‘ Like the rebel angels of “The Age of Anxiety” the Utopian and Arcadian of “Vespers” are “Determined always to deny / that man is weak and has to die” (189). They are fugitives whose inflamed egos long for escape into the “green Bohemia of a myth” where the dialectic of freedom is unknown. Eden and New Jerusalem, although integral to the Christian tradition and imagination, represent states of Being which, Auden warns in “The Age of Anxiety,” we may glimpse but never attain by finite human effort. “O where is the garden of Being that is only known in Existence / As the command to be never there. . .” (274).

“New Year Letter” also warns of the dire consequences of lingering in the “Field of Being.” If we refuse to suffer, if we refuse the “tasks of time” and overlook our lives, we deny our nature and spring the “trap of Hell” (178). Utopian and arcadian myths of Being deny our “Being in time,” our being engaged in the difficult dialectic of freedom from which it is vain to crave relief. We must depart from the garden and know that we cannot “will Heaven where / Is perfect freedom” (178). The romantic vision of a “green Kingdom” undisturbed by the uncertain winds of temporal existence is also rejected at the end of “The Sea and the Mirror,” Auden’s poetic commentary on The Tempest. Here, Auden defines a Christian philosophy of ultimate fulfillment that depends on our being in time “here among the ruins and the bones, [where] we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours” (340). Here among the ruins and bones, that “Wholly Other Life,” the broken Messiah of Good Friday’s vespers is to be found.

Ultimate fulfillment is not dissociated from the “tasks of time.” Auden’s philosophy of ultimate fulfillment depends on a Christian interpretation of history inspired by the creeds and liturgy and guided by the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich who so eloquently defined a theology of history.’ In The Nature and Destiny of Man Niebuhr makes a basic distinction “between various interpretations of the meaning of life by noting their attitude towards history” (2). This distinction guides Auden’s poetic revision of the liturgical celebration of the evening meal in “Vespers” which uncovers the presumptions of a non-historical and hence non-Christian interpretation of history. The Christian creeds, gospels, and liturgy ascribe a unique importance to actual historical occurrences, not myths. In “Religion and the Intellectuals” Auden gives the example of the clause “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” from the Apostles’ Creed which “expresses the belief that, for God, a particular moment in history … was `the fullness of the time,’ the right moment for the eternal vow to be made Flesh and the Divine Sacrifice to take place”(120).

A particular moment, the right moment, in history compels Auden to let go of the dream of safety which the Arcadian and Utopian offer in their siren fantasy of the Happy Place outside time. Auden’s understanding of ultimate fulfillment is profoundly disenchanting but existentially honest. We are bearers of history, responsible for the “Time Being which is the most trying time of all.” The Arcadian and Utopian elevate themselves above the Time Being by seeking refuge in either a past or future perfection. Auden cannot accept the arcadian/utopian fib and turns instead to the Christian doctrine of original sin as a metaphor to describe the character of human history. His review of The Nature and Destiny of Man highlights Niebuhr’s definition of original sin as “a symbol of an aspect of every historical moment” (“The Means of Grace” 766). Auden’s notion of history as a “dialectic of human choice” leads to the bitter conclusion that an aspect of every human choice originates in sin (“Augustus to Augustine” 36). Our inherent capacity for freedom and transcendence is relentlessly grounded by this “primary fact.” The challenge for Auden in Horae Canonicae, and “Vespers” in particular, is to understand the implications of this conclusion, while at the same time remaining faithful to the transcendent imperative of the Divine Office which is as much a prayer of praise exulting in the fulfillment of an eternal vow as it is an unending song of grief and longing for transcendence in the midst of suffering and historical uncertainty.

Auden’s understanding of ultimate fulfillment depends on a Christian interpretation of history which presupposes the primacy of original sin (accompanied by a rejection of a literal reading of the paradise story) and the centrality of Golgotha as the disclosure of the divine agape in history. Both themes, original sin and the crucifixion, are contained in the evocative and richly allusive legend of Adam’s Grave introduced in the first line of “Vespers.” The legend locates the burial of Adam and the cross of Christ in the same mythical space at the center of the earth. Adam’s Grave overlooks the earthly city of the poem as a perpetual reminder of the primacy of sin, but the legend also tells of the possibility of freedom and transcendence already fulfilled in the historical event at Golgotha, “the cross of the moment” when the divine agape is revealed and tortured. At the beginning of “Vespers” the arcadian narrator declares that the way in which we read the story of Adam and Eve, the “scandalous pair” of line 4, reveals what we think of our historical existence as citizens in the earthly city. Adam’s Grave provides Auden with a metaphor for the fundamental problem of human existence: sin. Based on his reading of Tillich and Niebuhr, Auden describes the root of sin as the desire to be as God, to be autonomous, to be the source of one’s own ultimate fulfillment. Sin arises not from finitude but from our denial of finite limitations. The arcadian/utopian dream of perfectibility arises from the hubris of finite creatures desiring to be as God and denying their own limitations. In this context, the legend of Adam’s Grave glances in two directions simultaneously: first, it foregrounds the problem of sin, bringing into focus the “fib” that inspires dreams of essential perfection; second, it foregrounds the historical event of Golgotha, affirming the possibility of freedom and transcendence in history. Both aspects of the legend are the foundation of Auden’s argument against otherworldly claims to essential perfection and lead to the sobering conclusion that the Paschal Christ gives no assurance of transcendence unmediated by suffering and the ambiguities of human experience. The remaining discussion of “Vespers” spotlights the problem of sin and suffering and the possibility of transcendence in terms of three areas of the poem: first, the introductory verse paragraphs surveying the landscape of the earthly city founded on Adam’s Grave; second, selected passages from the speaker’s portrait of himself as an Arcadian in contrast with his portrait of the Utopian, his anti-type; third, the final seven verse paragraphs, beginning “So with a passing glance. . .,” which foreground the inadequacy of utopian/arcadian visions of ultimate fulfillment in the presence of “our victim” of Good Friday.

“VESPERS” opens at dusk with a view of the hill “known as Adam’s Grave” overlooking “our city” which is the “lying self-made city” of “Prime” (the first poem in Horae Canonicae) and the earthly city or “the city of this world” of Augustine’s City of God:

If the hill overlooking our city has always been known as Adam’s Grave, / only at dusk can you see the recumbent giant, his head turned to the west, / his right arm resting for ever on Eve’s haunch,

can you learn, from the way he looks up at the scandalous pair, what a / citizen really thinks of his citizenship. (“Vespers” 482)

The argument of “Vespers” follows from the conditional “If’ which opens the poem. The conditions of the argument can be paraphrased in this way: if we accept the premise that the hill overlooking the earthly city is Adam’s Grave, it is only at dusk, in the evening light of the Paschal meal, that we can see and begin to understand the story of Adam and Eve. And it is only at dusk that we can learn what a citizen thinks about his nature and destiny by “the way he looks up at” or interprets the story of the “scandalous pair.” Auden reads the story of original sin in light of the evening hour of vespers when Christ announces his crucifixion and celebrates the eucharist as a ritual enactment of communion and ultimate fulfillment.

Auden’s allusion to Adam’s Grave can be developed in terms of one version of the legend of Adam as it appears in The Book of the Cave of Treasures, a Syrian collection of Christian legends dating from about the seventh century. The story begins with Noah’s command to his son Shem to remove Adam’s body from the Ark and go to Golgotha where the body is to be buried. Noah says to Shem,

And the Angel of God shall go before you, and shall show you the way wherein ye shall go, and also the place wherein the body of Adam shall be deposited, which is, indeed, the center of the earth. There the four quarters of the earth embrace each other. For when God made the earth His power went before it, and the earth, from [its] four quarters, ran after it, like the winds and the swift breezes, and there (i.e. in the center of the earth) His power stood still and was motionless. There shall redemption be made for Adam, and for all his posterity.’ (Budge 125)

This is the legendary hill Auden names as the touchstone by which we define our place in the earthly city. The typology of the first and second Adam is a reminder of what the Arcadian and Utopian would rather forget: original sin, rooted in our desire to be as God, is a manifestation of our existential estrangement, while the Cross of Golgotha, which reveals the inadequacy of our pretensions to ultimate authority, is a manifestation of the present possibility of ultimate fulfillment.

Implied in the story of the first Adam is the experience of estrangement as a turning away from the divine center to which we essentially belong and asserting, as Auden says in “Prime,” our own wish

No matter what, to be wise,

To be different, to die and the cost,

No matter how is Paradise

Lost of course… (476)

The unnamed Christ of Horae Canonicae has no wish to be anybody, but Adam and Eve are bewitched by their own wish for autonomy, turning away from God toward themselves as the source of their own fulfillment. Theirs is a desire, says Auden, not for “equality or even superiority, but for autonomy. It is a desire to become one’s own source of value, to become as God while still remaining a man, so that whether God exists or not is unimportant, since now any relationship to Him is unnecessary” (“The Things Which Are Caesar’s – I,” 413). In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve succumb to the serpent’s dazzling deception that should they eat of the fruit of the tree they shall become autonomous: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3: 4-5). The arcadian/utopian understanding of our nature and destiny depends on the claim “you will not die … you will be as God.” The illusion of self-elevation is among the “false eternals” we create to disguise our finitude. In Niebuhr’s work the root of sin is a denial of finite limitations: “all evil in human life is derived from an effort to transmute finite values into infinities, to seek infinite power, and infinite wealth and infinite gratification of desire” (Beyond Tragedy 16-17). “Vespers” foregrounds our denial of finite limitations as a manifestation of the original grand deception implied in the legend of Adam’s Grave overlooking the poem.

But the first Adam’s wish for autonomy is only one aspect of the legend haunting the earthly city of “Vespers.” At the still center of the earth Adam’s Grave opens into the Cross of Golgotha, death opens into ultimate fulfillment, finitude into freedom. This mingling of the first and second Adam is the locus of Auden’s understanding of ultimate fulfillment and the possibility of redeeming the time from insignificance. When the Arcadian and Utopian meet at the “cross-roads” of the evening hour, it is the memory of the death of innocence, the offering of the Paschal sacrifice, that briefly dispels the enchanting deception of a Happy Place outside time. Auden’s “Vespers,” like the evening hour of the Divine Office, bears the memory of this death, this dying on this Good Friday when we are compelled to acknowledge the “Sin Offering” of “our victim the second Adam who remains unnamed throughout the poem (484).

The context of the “Sin Offering” of our victim and the briefly named “meal” in “Vespers” is the evening prayer of the Divine Office. Although the “meal” remains unidentified in “Vespers,” the liturgical context of the poem invites associations with the canonical themes of the evening hour. The sacrificial character of vespers derives from the Jewish thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in the land of Egypt. The angel of death passed over those houses whose lintels were smeared with the blood of the sacrificed lamb, thus sparing the Israelites’ first born. What dominates the Christian evening prayer are the themes of deliverance and sacrifice derived from the Jewish Passover which Jesus re-enacted when He offered Himself as the Paschal sacrifice in the form of wine and bread. During the Last Supper Jesus prophesies that He will neither eat nor drink until the Passover is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God comes (Luke 22.15-18). This anticipation of ultimate fulfillment depends on the sacrifice of the Cross at a particular moment in history, just as the deliverance of the Hebrews from the angel of death depended on the blood of a sacrificed lamb at another moment in history.

Paradoxically Christ’s self-offering fulfills the most profound possibility of freedom. The offense of Christianity is that ultimate fulfillment depends on the degradation of Golgotha: the character of God is revealed in the life of a beaten Messiah who is “counted among the lawless” and the blasphemous (Luke 22.37). Vespers remembers the selfoffering of a nobody as a revelation of the Kingdom of God in our midst. The foolishness of Emmanuel (God-with-us) threatens the wisdom and the very foundation of the earthly city whose highest religious and secular authorities condemn the incarnation of ultimate fulfillment as a “Lord of Misrule, a bad companion for mankind” (Dyer’s Hand 208).7 The outrageous notion of a Messiah without authority offends the builders of the earthly city which depends on self-love and the will to power. In The Nature and Destiny of Man Niebuhr argues that the divine agape in history can be symbolized only by “complete powerlessness, or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history” (11.72). The “tragic perfection” of Golgotha completes a life which “seeketh not its own” and is therefore “not able to maintain itself in historical society” (11.72). In Auden’s “Terce” “it is only our victim who is without a wish” to be somebody (476), only our victim of Good Friday who does not wish for authority or validation in history.

In “Vespers,” dreams of ultimate fulfillment in a past or future utopia are broken in the recognition of our victim whose immolation is underlined as triumphant in the epigraph introducing Horae Canonicae. “Immolatus vicerit” from “Pange lingua” of Fortunatus is an exultant hymn rejoicing in the Sin-Offering of the Cross. Auden’s “Vespers” does not convey the exultation of “Pange lingua” or the joy of the “Magnificat,” the Canticle of Mary which is invariably sung during evening prayer. In the following passage from the concluding prose stanzas, the Arcadian and Utopian are profoundly disillusioned and angered by their meeting with each other because each reveals the inadequacy of the other’s vision of ultimate fulfillment. What experience can they possibly share? In a glance they recognize that they are accomplices in a crime:

So with a passing glance we take the other’s posture. Already our steps / recede, heading, incorrigible each, towards his kind of meal and evening.

Was it (as it must look to any god of cross-roads) simply a fortuitous / intersection of life-paths, loyal to different fibs?

Or also a rendezvous between two accomplices who, in spite of / themselves, cannot resist meeting

to remind the other (do both, at bottom, desire truth?) of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget …. (“Vespers” 484)

Initially, however, “Vespers” does not focus on the shared experience of the accomplices, but on the profound and irreconcilable differences between the Arcadian and Utopian and between Eden and New Jerusalem. Beginning with the seventh prose stanza, the Arcadian speaker dwells on those characteristics that distinguish him from the Utopian: “Both simultaneously recognize his Anti-type: that I am an Arcadian, / that he is a Utopian” (482). The Arcadian would linger in a playful fantasy of innocence where the inhabitants admire Bellini, play with “beautiful pieces of obsolete machinery” and determine value in terms of aesthetics. The edenic wish-dream of playfulness, beauty, and innocence excludes the immediate demands of the “slumchild with rickets” and infuriates the Utopian who would like to put the Arcadian dreamer to work. Unlike the Arcadian, the Utopian sees violence and suffering, not innocence, and by practicing “rational virtues” works toward fulfilling the dream of a Happy Place in the future. In terms of a Christian attitude to history, the Utopian is mistaken because he undermines the present by locating ultimate fulfillment in the future and falls into hubris by assuming that the estrangement of our existential predicament will be overcome by virtue of finite human effort. In the following passage, the arcadian speaker illustrates the contrast between his own edenic wish-dream and the utopian drive toward a future paradise:

He [the Utopian] would like to see me cleaning latrines: I would like to see him / removed to some other planet.

Neither speaks. What experience could we possibly share?

Glancing at a lampshade in a store window, I observe it is too hideous / for anyone in their senses to buy: He observes it is too expensive for a / peasant to buy.

Passing a slum child with rickets, I look the other way: He looks the / other way if he passes a chubby one. (“Vespers” 483)

The body of the poem from stanzas seven through twenty-three juxtaposes a series of opposing traits leading us to the dramatic moment when the Arcadian and Utopian cannot resist glancing at each other. And for an instant they see eye to eye at this evening hour. Vespers is the hour of the Paschal meal when “our victim” of Golgotha is remembered and the Arcadian and Utopian remind each other “of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget” (484). Both see the suffering of innocence. For a moment neither looks the other way; both see the slum child (suffering) and the chubby child (innocence) simultaneously. The intersection of their paths, says the Arcadian, forces “. . both for a fraction of a second, to remember our victim (but / for him I could forget the blood, but for me he could forget the innocence)” (484). This encounter is not merely a “fortuitous” meeting but a rendezvous between partners in a crime. Both are loyal to their own “fibs” and bound to each other by their shared guilt in shedding the blood of innocence.

The experience of common guilt expressed in claiming the sacrificial victim as “ours” realizes the fear Adam articulates at the beginning of Horae Canonicae when he awakens to face his “. . historical share of care / For a lying self-made city, / Afraid of our living task, the dying Which the coming day will ask” (“Prime” 476). The “living task” of our daily labor continues the Augustinian building of the earthly city whose most splendid achievements are mingled with the idolatry of the will to power and self-affirmation. The lying, because self-made, city springs from the metaphysical hubris of Adam’s wish for autonomy. The highest ideals of the civitas terenna are mingled with self-wilfulness, and the city itself depends on the immolation of innocence to secure the safety of its secular wall. For a fraction of a second the utopian dreamers participate in the evening liturgy by remembering “our victim” and thereby recognize their (and our) responsibility in the tragic destiny of estrangement. In the language of Augustine’s City of God the earthly city which is “created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God” and the heavenly city which is created by “the love of God carried as far as contempt of self’ are “interwoven, as it were in this present transitory world and mingled with one another.”8 The highest religious and secular authorities who authorize the sacrifice of innocence are driven by the demonic selfwilfulness that plays itself out in the bloody drama of Golgotha. In the concluding lines of the poem, the Arcadian says, it is our own victim of self-love

In The City of God Augustine describes Cain’s murder of Abel as the primal, archetypal crime upon which the earthly city is founded. This archetypal event is later repeated in a crime of the same kind when Romulus kills his brother Remus, an event that marks the founding of Rome, “the capital of the earthly city.” To underline the primacy of the “Sin Offering” of fratricide as the foundation of the civitas terenna, Augustine quotes a line from Lucan’s Pharsalia which describes the walls of Rome “dripping with a brother’s blood (City of God XV.5.600). This image becomes a “cement of blood” in Auden’s “Vespers” and illustrates the demonic aspect of the quest for autonomy and transcendence, forcing the Utopian and Arcadian to recognize that they are “accomplices” in the death of innocence. For a split second they acknowledge our victim as the blood offering upon which their own dreams of autonomy depend. Utopias, arcadias, and democracies are thus refuted as inadequate interpretations of ultimate fulfillment.

Self-love is an aspect of the civitas terenna, call it utopia, arcadia, democracy. The original sin of our desire to be as God touches every moment of our historical existence. At the same time our capacity for freedom and transcendence bears the possibility of redemption and this too touches every moment of our historical existence. In Auden and Augustine it is not possible to separate the wheat from the chaff or the demonic from the redemptive which characterize history as a dialectic of human choice. The earthly and heavenly cities are interwoven.

Auden’s philosophy of ultimate fulfillment does not seek escape from the ambiguity of history but depends on the doctrine of original sin as a way of describing the self-contradictory nature of our existential predicament. The scandal of the Cross remembered at the Paschal meal of evening prayer addresses and is not refuted by this predicament. The fulfillment of Passover in the historical act of God on Golgotha is not explicitly named in the poem but is represented in the liturgical context of the evening sacrifice. It is the remembrance of the Paschal meal that uncovers the self-deception of utopianism as the demonic temptation to overcome ambiguity by becoming one’s own source of value. The Paschal mystery encountered daily in liturgical anamnesis re-presents the possibility of “redeeming the time.” The Arcadian and Utopian reject this possibility offered by the Cross of the moment and turn away from the Passover meal of thanksgiving to make their own kind of meal: their “steps / recede, heading, incorrigible each, towards his kind of meal and evening” (“Vespers” 484).

“Vespers” ends with a lingering disillusionment and a haunting awareness of the inadequacy of the utopian flight into a timeless Happy Place. This awareness is sharpened by the absence of the celebratory themes of thanksgiving and fulfillment which are an integral part of evening prayer in the Divine Office. Vespers invariably concludes with the “Magnificat,” the song of Mary’s rejoicing in the fulfillment of Israel’s hope in the birth of the Messiah at a particular moment in history. The Judeo-Christian affirmation of history as a dimension of God’s presence accentuates the arcadian/utopian “fib” that ultimate fulfillment is to be found in a Happy Place outside time. The notion of our essential perfection is refuted by the doctrine of original sin and the Paschal sacrifice remembered at vespers. Adam’s contradictory wish to control the absolute and become as God underlies the arcadian/utopian dream of the Happy Place. That dream cannot be fulfilled. Ultimate fulfillment becomes visible at the Paschal meal when Christ’s self-offering reminds us that not only are we weak and have to die, but the perfected work of redeeming the time from insignificance is not ours. We are not the source of our own value.

Auden’s understanding of ultimate fulfillment is rooted in the historical nature of Christianity. The sacramental character and temporal rhythm of the Canonical Hours depend on a philosophy of history in which the tasks of time, the cross of the moment, bear the signature of the infinite. In “The Things Which Are Caesar’s – II” Auden argues that history as a dialectic of human choice demands our immediate responsibility:

A Christian is at once commanded to accept his creatureliness, both natural and historical, not to attempt to escape into a fantastic world untrammelled by the realities of space and time, and forbidden to make an idol of nature or history. It might be said that for him only two temporal categories are significant, the present instant and eternity. (454)

But the desire to escape the present instant and the demands of the “eternal now” is “incorrigible.” At the end of “Vespers” the Arcadian and Utopian turn away from the Paschal meal they would rather forget and once again seek refuge in a happy otherworld of an Eden lost in the past and a New Jerusalem to be hoped for in the future. While “Vespers” spotlights the arcadian/utopian disillusionment, the silent voice of the poem is that of the Lord of Misrule, the Paschal Christ who has no wish to be anybody, but manifests the creative possibility of ultimate fulfillment in the midst of the agony and death of Good Friday.


1) All references to Auden’s poetry are from the Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976).

2) Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Dacre, 1964) 87-88. 1 have consulted a number of studies of the Divine Office, including the following: J. D. Crichton, Christian Celebration: The Mass, The Sacraments and the Prayer of the Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1981); W. J. Grisbrooke, “The Divine Office and Public Workshop,” Studia Liturgica 8 (1971-1972): 129-68 and 9 (1973): 3-18 and 81-106; D. Y Hadidian, “The Background and Origin of the Christian Hours of Prayer,” Theological Studies 25 (1964): 59-69; Laudis Canticum: Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI on the Roman Breviary, Nov. 1, 1970 in James J. Megivern, Worship and Liturgy (North Carolina: McGrath, 1978); Juan Mateos “The Morning and Evening Office”, Worship 42 (1968): 3147 and “The Origins of the Divine Office”, Worship 41 (1967): 477-85; William G. Storey, Morning Praise and Evensong (Notre Dame: Fides P, 1973); Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today (Collegeville: Liturgical P, 1986) and “Thanksgiving for the Light: Towards a Theology of Vespers,” Diakonia 13 (1978): 27-50. G. Winkler, “A New Study of the Early Development of the Office,” Worship 56 (1982): 27-35, 264-67.

3) Auden’s critique of romantic notions of the Happy Place in Horae Canonicae can be understood in terms of his Christian attitude toward history. I studied this relationship in an earlier essay called, “W. H. Auden’s Theology of History in Horae Canonicae: `Prime,’ `Terce,’ ‘Sext,”‘ Literature and Theology 11.1 (March 1997): 46-66.

For a reading of the Adamic myth in terms of a “political argumentation” see Mark Currie, “The hectic quest for prelapsarian man: the Adamic in late Auden,” Critical Survey 6.3 (1994): 355-60. Anthony Hecht briefly discusses the dream of a perfect society in “Vespers” in The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W H. Auden (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993): 389-93. Edward Mendelson discusses the whole of Horae Canonicae in Later Auden (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999): 332-59. For an earlier reading of Horae Canonicae see George W. Bahlke, The Later Auden (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1970).

4) “Romantic or Free: The Commencement Address June 17, 1940,” Smith Alumnae Quarterly (3 August 1940): 353. See Alan Jacobs’ study of Auden’s anti-romanticism in “Beyond Romanticism: Auden’s Choice of Tradition,” Religion and Literature 21.2 (Summer 1989): 61-77. This essay includes a reading of “Vespers.” See also Jacobs’ more recent work on Auden’s romanticism: “The Critique of Romanticism” in What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry (Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1998): 15-31.

5) For further information about Auden’s interest in Niebuhr and Tillich see Ursula Niebuhr, “Memories of the 1940’s” in W. H. Auden: A Tribute, ed. Stephen Spender (New York: Macmillan, 1974): 104-18. Ursula Niebuhr recalls that she and Reinhold Niebuhr met Auden in 1940. In 1947 he was studying the origin and history of the canonical hours and by then he had read (and admired) Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, Tillich’s The Interpretation of History and mimeographed copies of the systematic theology (Ursula Niebuhr 106).

6) Edward Mendelson traces the image of Adam’s Grave to a painting by Pavel Tchelitchew entitled “Fata Morgana (Derby Hill Theme, Summer)” 1940 in “Pavel Tchelitchew and `Adam’s Grave,”‘ The W. H. Auden Society Newsletter (Sept. 1998): 3-4. For a reproduction of the painting see the Society’s website, www.audensociety.org.

7) Auden, “The Prince’s Dog.” The Messiah refuses earthly authority. See Cornelia Pearsall’s “The Poet and the Postwar City,” Raritan 17.2 (Fall 1997): 104-20 for a

discussion of the creative/destructive nature of authority which commands the building of the earthly city in Auden’s postwar poetry.

8) Augustine, Concerning The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson and intro. David Knowles (Middlesex: Penguin 1972): XIV.28.593 and XI. 1.430.

Works Cited

Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. New York: Random House, 1976. – “Augustus to Augustine.” Forewords and Afterwards. New York: Random House, 1989.33-39.

– “Dingley Dell & the Fleet.” The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. 407-28.

– “The Means of Grace.” The New Republic. 2 June 1941: 765-66.

_. “The Prince’s Dog.” The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. 182-208.

– “Religion and the Intellectuals.” Partisan Review. 17 (February 1950): 120-28. “Romantic or Free: The Commencement Address, June 17, 1940.” Smith Alumnae Quarterly. 3 August 1940: 353-58.

– “The Things Which are Caesar’s-I.” Theology. (November 1950): 411-17. – “The Things Which are Caesar’s-II.” Theology. (December 1950): 449-55. Augustine. Concerning The City of God Against the Pagans. Trans. Henry Bettenson. Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.

Budge, Sir E.A. Wallis, trans. The Book of the Cave of Treasures: A History of the Patriarchs and the Kings their Successors From the Creation to the Crucifixion. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1927.

Dix, Dom Gregory. The Shape of the Liturgy. London: Dacre, 1964.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Interpretation of History. 1937; New York: Scribner’s, 1965.

__.The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. Vol. 11 Human Destiny. 1943; New York: Scribner’s, 1964.

Jan Curtis, Ph. D., is an Associate Professor of English at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. She teaches Modern British literature, Modern Celtic literature, and women’s literary history. Her work on W. H. Auden, Neil Gunn, and Charles Williams has appeared in Literature and Theology, Scottish Literary Journal, and Arthuriana. Currently she is working on a longer study of the relationship between poetry and liturgy in Auden’s Horae Canonicae.

Copyright Marquette University Spring 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved