When W.H. Auden wrote: “A poet enchants for the purpose of disenchanting people with their illusions about themselves and the world” he was making the case that getting people thinking through poetry would bring them closer to the truth. He was writing as a High Church Anglo-Catholic for whom poetry was integral to his life and religion. “It is always dangerous to read any sort of biographical self-referentiality into Auden's writing, as he was famously vocal in his abhorrence of the confessional note.” (Yu 2003, p. 208) However that will not stop me seeking to outline Auden’s life and religious positions.
I want to take a historical approach to the widespread disenchantment with established religion. I will begin with the earliest Christians in England; continue with the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution; before considering Auden himself. I will finish by considering how religious communities can respond positively to these developments.
Christianity came to England when Irish monks founded monasteries like Lindisfarne and Whitby in Northumbria during the 6th century AD. It was here that the Anglo-Saxon poet Cćdmon began the tradition of Old English poetry. ‘Enchantment’, a feeling of delight as under a magic spell, was widespread under this mystical religion.
In 1517 Martin Luther objected to the selling of indulgences, papal infallibility & corruption and the enforced use of Latin by the Roman Catholic church. He countered this by translating the bible into German (1534) and writing hymns in his mother tongue. Together with Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type printing, this heralded a widespread increase in literacy. Confessions, purgatory, stigmata, relics and the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary were abandoned. Disenchantment with established religion was accelerating.
During the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, a new era of rationalism began, led by France, England & Germany. Traditional lines of authority were further eroded with reason, analysis, and individualism. This coincided with the scientific revolution led by Descartes in France, Newton in England and Leibniz in Germany.
When Max Weber wrote “Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus” in 1905, he heralded the new discipline of sociology. He argued that the protestant work ethic and capitalism had led to a new philistinism of individual wealth accumulation and the rejection of ‘luxuries’ like art, music, dance and poetry (Weber et alia, 1930).
Wystan Hugh Auden was born into a middle class Anglo-Catholic (high church) family in York in 1907. The next year his father became a Lecturer and later a Professor of Public Health at Birmingham University. His father’s most notable publication being the first recorded paper on auto-erotic strangulation! Both his grandfathers were clergymen.
Auden was sent to St Edmund's Preparatory School in Hindhead in Surrey where he first met Christopher Isherwood the famous novelist and fellow homosexual with whom he was to have an on-off life long relationship. After Common Entrance at the age of thirteen, he became a pupil at Gresham’s Anglican Public School in Norfolk. Here he discovered poetry but temporarily lost his faith. In 1923 he published his first poems in the school magazine.
In 1925 Auden won a Biology scholarship to Christ Church College in Oxford, but after a year he transferred to English Literature. Here he led the famous Auden group (“MacSpaunday”) including Cecil Day-Lewis (later Poet Laureate), Louis MacNeice, and the bisexual Stephen Spender. In 1928 he graduated with a disappointing third class honours degree.
Auden became a schoolmaster then a writer for the GPO film unit where he collaborated with fellow homosexual the famous composer Benjamin Britten. Like George Orwell he was caught up on the left-wing Republican side of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and with Christopher Isherwood in the Sino-Japanese War in 1938. The next year they moved to the USA, followed three months later by Benjamin Britten & Peter Pears, part of the wave of leftists and pacifists fleeing the war. It was here that he met Chester Kallman the gay Jewish librettist with whom he had another on-off life long relationship. In 1940 he rediscovered his Anglican/Episcopalian faith.
In 1948 he began spending the summers back in Europe particularly Austria where he was to die in 1973. Between 1956 and 1961 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. In 1962 Auden published his essay “The Poet and the City” in which he daydreamt of a “College for Bards”. Students would have to study one ancient language like Greek or Hebrew, poetry would be learnt by rote, literary criticism would be banned save for parodies, other subjects could be studied and all would have to care for a domestic animal and a garden plot! Is this a return to the enchanted world of Anglo-Saxon monasticism?
Like many gay men, in later years he returned to his “smells & bells” Anglo-Catholic High Church roots. Having published around 400 poems, he was granted the ultimate accolade of a plaque in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey our National Pantheon in 1974.
Today secularisation is widespread in England, though less so in WASPish (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) USA. In order to counter this movement, religious communities need to strive to return to services full of enchantment. First and foremost poetry can be re-introduced into religious services. What about a new Shakespeare sonnet every week? Couple this with a return to the use of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. These are Elizabethan/Jacobean writings of the very highest quality. Parts of the Bible are indeed poetry and need to be read out loud as such. Secondly, music and song in religious services need to be enchanting. Are lyrics not poetry? The rhythms and harmonies of words and music can have powerful effects. Is there a role for dance too?
So to summarise, the Protestant Reformation and work ethic, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution have all contributed to widespread secularisation. Poetry, both old and new, can help re-enchant religious communities. Auden may have been a poet of disenchantment but a good poem is a tall story, if it's really good it makes one want to know the truth!
I will end with the opening lines of “Poetry and Religion” (Murray, 1987):
“Religions are poems. They concert our daylight and dreaming mind, our emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture into the only whole thinking: poetry. Nothing's said till it's dreamed out in words and nothing's true that figures in words only.”