Augustinian Auden : the influence of Augustine of Hippo on W. H. Auden.
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Schuler, Stephen J.
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It is widely acknowledged that W. H. Auden became a Christian in about 1940, but relatively little critical attention has been paid to Auden’s theology, much less to the particular theological sources of Auden’s faith. Auden read widely in theology, and one of his earliest and most important theological influences on his poetry and prose is Saint Augustine of Hippo. This dissertation explains the Augustinian origin of several crucial but often misunderstood features of Auden’s work. They are, briefly, the nature of evil as privation of good; the affirmation of all existence, and especially the physical world and the human body, as intrinsically good; the difficult aspiration to the fusion of Eros and agape in the concept of Christian charity; and the status of poetry as subject to both aesthetic and moral criteria. Auden had already been attracted to similar ideas in Lawrence, Blake, Freud, and Marx, but those thinkers’ common insistence on the importance of physical existence took on new significance with Auden’s acceptance of the Incarnation as an historical reality. For both Auden and Augustine, the Incarnation was proof that the physical world is redeemable. Auden recognized that if neither the physical world nor the human body are intrinsically evil, then the physical desires of the body, such as Eros, the self-interested survival instinct, cannot in themselves be intrinsically evil. The conflict between Eros and agape, or altruistic love, is not a Manichean struggle of darkness against light, but a struggle for appropriate placement in a hierarchy of values, and Auden derived several ideas about Christian charity from Augustine. Augustine’s influence was largely conscious on Auden’s part, though it was often indirect as well. Auden absorbed important Augustinian ideas through modern sources such as Charles Williams, Charles Norris Cochrane, and Denis de Rougemont, although he was himself an observant and incisive reader of Augustine’s major works, especially the Confessions. This dissertation demonstrates that the works and ideas of Augustine are a deep and significant influence on Auden’s prose and poetry, and especially on his long poems.