Auden and the Victim

Another Good Friday discovery (for me at least – slow on the uptake as always): W.H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae, subtitled “Immolatus vicerit”, “the victim has conquered”.

It’s a sequence of seven poems based on the canonical hours of prayer: Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline and Lauds. The Radio 3 website has recordings of the poems being read by Tom Durham and – a real treat this – introduced by Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury.

For those of you still here (why?), I wanted to quote a few excerpts focusing on Auden’s references to “the victim”. In these he anticipates René Girard by two decades, as he identifies the victimary mechanism at the heart of human society.

In the second poem, Terce, Auden describes a hangman, a judge and a poet all embarking upon their day’s work (the judge “gently closing the door of his wife’s bedroom / (Today she has one of her headaches)” – suffering greatly in a dream, no doubt). Like James Alison on Wednesday, Auden emphasises the banality of the events:

the Big Ones
Who can annihilate a city,
Cannot be bothered with this moment…

Those involved in events are more concerned with the mundane and everyday: avoiding “a dressing down from a superior” or “behaving like an ass in front of the girls”:

At this hour we all might be anyone:
It is only our victim who is without a wish
Who knows already (that is what
We can never forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then why are we here, why is there even dust?)
Knows already that, in fact, our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mount Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday.

Again the banality: there is “no other miracle” in this “good Friday” other than that those involved all carry out their vocations (a concept which Auden develops in the third poem) without incident or mishap.

By the fourth poem, Nones, the deed is done:

we are surprised
At the ease and speed of our deed
And uneasy: It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
For silence so sudden and so soon;
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
What shall we do till nightfall?

Auden continues with a stanza that could have come straight from Eliot (certainly it nods in Eliot’s direction with the reference to “the rapture on the spiral stair”). Auden describes how beneath every aspect of everyday life – gardens, games, brooks and books – lies the suppressed memory of our expulsion of the scapegoat:

This mutilated flesh, our victim,
Explains too nakedly, too well,
The spell of the asparagus garden,
The aim of our chalk-pit game; stamps,
Birds’ eggs are not the same, behind the wonder
Of tow-paths and sunken lanes,
Behind the rapture on the spiral stair,
We shall always now be aware
Of the deed into which they lead, under
The mock chase and mock capture,
The racing and tussling and splashing,
The panting and the laughter,
Be listening for the cry and stillness
To follow after: wherever
The sun shines, brooks run, books are written,
There will also be this death.

The fifth poem, Vespers, is perhaps the most remarkable of all. Auden describes meeting his “Anti-type”: the “Utopian” who, in contrast to the “Arcadian” Auden’s poetical “Eden”, seeks a technocratic, rationalist and implicitly socialist “New Jerusalem”. The two are necessarily enemies (“He would like to see me cleaning latrines: I would like to see him removed to some other planet”) with, it seems, no points of commonality or contact:

Neither speaks. What experience could we possibly share?

Auden answers this question in the final half-dozen lines of the poem, which are pure Girard:

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 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

forcing us 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)

on whose immolation (call him Abel, Remus, whom you will, it is one Sin Offering) arcadias, utopias, our dear old bag of a democracy, are alike founded:

For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.

The final poem, Lauds, then turns back to everyday life: a new day dawns, and “men of their neighbours become sensible”. The BBC recordings place this at the start of the sequence, but it doesn’t really make much difference: in each case, the reassuring picture of the abiding order of life (“God bless the Realm, God bless the People”) has been, or will be, shown to be founded on the sacrifice of the Victim.

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3 Responses to Auden and the Victim

  1. it’s encouraging to hear Auden is being read on British radio, John.
    I’ve lately come to the conclusion that he is under-rated right now. On my last couple of visits to the ‘big city’ I’ve tried, without success, to track down his ‘Selected’ or ‘Collected’ poems without any luck, although many lesser lights seem to be crowding the shelves of the poetry sections of the book shops.
    (I try to patronise local (i.e. Australian) booksellers, but I find that they are increasingly less interested in the individual reader and cater rather to the mass market – a special order for a book not already on their shelves attracts an exorbitant charge over and above our already inflated book prices; I suppose I’ll have to resort to Amazon in this case.)

  2. frank sonnek says:

    “For those of you still here (why?), I wanted to quote a few excerpts focusing on Auden’s references to “the victim”. In these he anticipates René Girard by two decades, as he identifies the victimary mechanism at the heart of human society.”

    WH Auden was a man who in the 20´s was both an ardent christian and who was also gay only about 20 years after both the words gay and homosexual were coined and not even then yet part of the vernacular.

    for those who feel that putting the words “practicing homosexual” and “ardent christian ” in the same sentence is oxymoronic, arden can not possibly make any sense at all. Everything he wrote reflected the tension involved in trying to be an honest christian living in a society that had no place for him either among most christians nor among most homosexuals.

    Things have changes so little since then.

  3. frank sonnek says:

    Is it accidental that this posting immediately preceeds the post on “silence in the church”?

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