W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

In June 1946, Harvard University observed its long-awaited Victory Commencement. For the first time since the end of WWII, alumni and graduates had a chance to gather in Harvard Yard. The ceremony was a time for the University to appraise all the changes the war had caused, and the even more profound changes that peace was about to bring. Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had died. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the very highest level. President James Bryant Conant had consulted with President Truman about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

As if to symbolize that intimacy, the 1946 Commencement awarded honorary degrees to the Chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. More questionable was the choice of that year’s Phi Beta Kappa orator: Byron Price, who had served as Director of the Federal Office of Censorship, in charge of monitoring press coverage of the war. Price used the occasion to deliver a rather ominous exhortation to “the man of letters,” whom he accused, 10 months after the war ended, of still not doing enough for national morale. “How often,” he asked, “shall the seeker find between these myriad covers an ounce of literary beauty, or a thimbleful of spiritual elevation? We are served a fare of dissoluteness and destruction. We are asked to sneer at man and regard him as no better than the worm. We are invited to improve our minds by studying the endless sagas of criminals and harlots, moving in sordid surroundings, and worshiping only the flesh.”

Under Which Lyre

It was against this backdrop of war and peace, and a university caught between them, that W.H. Auden, that year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet, got up to deliver his own contribution to the festivities. If Auden was listening when Price issued his “commissar-like” advice to writers, he would have been revolted, but not surprised. In fact, his poem, Under Which Lyre, impishly subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times, was intended to be a retaliation against Price’s brand of official uplift. In 174 witty, neatly rhymed lines, Auden set out his prophetic vision of the challenges facing postwar America in general, and the postwar university in particular. Occasional poems usually fade pretty quickly, but even in 2007, the year of Auden’s centenary, Under Which Lyre remains one of his most charming and perceptive works.

Under Which Lyre begins by setting the scene, in language that is by by turns colloquial and quaintly literary. “Ares at last has quit the field,” Auden proclaims, invoking the Greek god of war. Drawing upon his memories of a bombed-out Germany, which he had visited in 1945 as an analyst for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he writes, “in their convalescent state/The fractured towns associate/With summer flowers.” He then turns to a less somber kind of postwar scene, one that his listeners at Harvard would have recognized with a laugh:

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

Yet even as Harvard returned to its civilian pursuits and petty vanities, with students struggling with the poems of Donne, and “professors back from secret missions” bragging about their adventures, Auden saw another kind of conflict beginning to take shape. This was the war between two opposing sensibilities, the two social and spiritual visions, that Auden named Apollo and Hermes. Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, became for Auden “pompous Apollo,” the patron saint of “official art.” Against him, Auden set Hermes, the trickster god, protector of thieves and liars, who is “precocious and undisciplined.” Both of these gods can make a kind of music, but Auden asks the reader to decide “under which lyre” he will take his stand.

The comedy of the poem lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the ruling spirit of what he called “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, Auden suggested, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts, of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too. Auden gives a wonderful catalog of the things these Apollonians want to impose: colleges where “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge,” with courses on “Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport“; poems that “Extol the doughnut and commend/The Common Man“; even processed foods: “a glass of prune juice or a nice/Marsh-mallow salad.” In short, Auden was already predicting the dullest, most conformist aspects of American life during the Cold War years, the kind of prosperous mediocrity that gave the 1950s a bad name.

Auden’s Commandments for Free Spirits

But if it’s impossible to dislodge Apollo from his throne, Auden suggested thay you can still follow Hermes in private. That is why the last stanzas of Under Which Lyre offer a set of commandments for free spirits who refuse to fall into line:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

His advice was half-joking, but only half. Auden was reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is superfluous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

Auden knew that a society run by Hermes would be a disaster; but a society without any followers of Hermes in it would be a true nightmare. That message makes Under Which Lyre a truly American poem, a defense of the individual against the masses. The continued life of Auden’s Phi Beta Kappa poem is a reminder that, when the generals and censors and other powers of the earth are forgotten, it is the mere poet who remains.

h/t to Adam Kirsch at The Harvard Magazine.

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One Response to “W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times”

  1. Dr. X Says:

    “Auden was reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is superfluous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.”


    Great photos, too.

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