Summons of the Star

H/T: From Fr. Jonathan Tobias’ blog Second Terrace (here)

from For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, by W. H. Auden

I am that star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me,
Yet read in my procession through the skies
The doom of orthodox suphrosyne:
I shall discard their major preservation,
All that they know so long as no one asks:
I shall deprive them of their minor tasks
In free and legal households of sensation,
Of money, picnics, beer, and sanitation.

Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo;
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

A brief commentary:

This is the first section of the fourth part of Auden’s long poem, “For the Time Being,” published in 1944 and out of print in 2010.

This is not a popular work, as its deep Christianity offends Auden’s bohemian audience on one hand, and the customary Christian audience on the other.

I will not pretend to do a full exegesis here. There will only be a few short notes that may or may not do just to the argument and design of these two stanzas.

The phrase “doom of orthodox suphrosyne” leaped to my attention, with a connotation that was unintended by the poet. “Orthodox” for him meant the aggregate and rather flat sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. In an earlier section, the “semi-chorus” intones: “Joseph, Mary, pray for all/ The proper and conventional/ Of whom this world approves/ … O pray for our salvation/ Who take the prudent way/ Believing we shall be exempted/ From the general condemnation/ … O pray for us, the bourgeoisie.”

“Suphrosyne” is that all-important Greek word that, as usual, has no good English counterpart. The word can be translated as “balance” or “prudence,” or better, both of these meanings. It is the sort of philosophy that the orthodox bourgeoisie likes. It is a sensibility that is admirably expressed by Polonius to his departing son Laertes: “to thine own self be true” (Hamlet, act 1). We should remember, here, that Polonius was a buffoon, who was not brave enough to be clearly malevolent. This is usually the way of “orthodox suphrosyne.” Were there not evil and the approach of a consuming fire, then suphrosyne would be sufficient: but evil is, after all, and the Day of the Lord will be: thus there must needs be a “doom” of such orthodoxy. This, by the way, is one of the many reasons why the poor – not the bourgeoisie – are blessed.

The star that is summoning the wise men states, rather abruptly, that it will “discard their major preservation” and their “minor tasks.” The content of the former is “all that they know so long as no one asks.” This is the gnosis of static fact. Better, it is “data” mistaken as “knowledge.” It is “common sense” which, as you must know, is no good anymore. Wisdom that cannot stand up to query is not wisdom at all: this is bad news indeed for the new popular atheists, militant evolutionists and mega-church right-wingers (who speak English as a second language without possessing any primary language).

The “minor tasks” serve as an opiate to save the orthodox from realizing that their “preservation” will not preserve. The Star promises to disrupt the business of “free and legal households of sensation.” After the Star’s journey, the stuff of “money, picnics, beer and sanitation” can serve no longer as a goal. One cannot serve Mammon, or his commodities.

Wise Men following this Star must give up the comforts of propositional theology. I think, if one follows Auden far enough, that one must also give up the project of the School Men here. The way up to Logos is an ascent up a Glassy Mountain. Enthymemes are good for rhetoric, perhaps, but not so good for dogma.

I have long wondered whether propositions, too, are opiates. Do they not serve as a shield against the psychic “press” of knowledge, of awareness of substance – especially of bodiless substance and power? “Mysterium tremens” is not just a reaction to Divinity: it is the human experience of knowledge in general. Hence: ” … that Bridge of Dread/ Where knowledge but increases vertigo.”

Becoming Christian – that is, believing for real and becoming real – is not pleasant. Peaceful, finally, and ultimately beautiful, yes indeed. But not nice. We should never have thought so. We should never have said so. We make belief and becoming sound like the ultima at an Amway meeting or a hallucinogenic ingress into a holodeck rendering of a Thomas Kinkade “painting of light.”

No: it is the journey of the Magi, rehearsed at every repentance and moment of belief. “Those who pursue me take a twisting lane/ To find themselves immediately alone/ With savage water or unfeeling stone,/ In labyrinths where they must entertain/ Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.”

Wise men discover Christ only after they have stared death in the face. Perhaps this is true of all men, not just wise. I am sure, however, that the wise and intelligent are given no excuse for shirking their existential duty. Surely, too, the Christians of “Christianity in its fullness” have no excuse: Orthodoxy (not the plastic film stuff of the bourgeoisie) is the cure of death, and it is thus the way of the Star. It must traverse desert and wend through labyrinth. Most people will not like this trip. We should not be surprised when many are called but few are chosen, when so few show up for the Wedding Banquet.

Auden has his Wise Men represent certain poetical categories. The Positive Scientist discovered that Mother Nature is “just as big a liar, in fact, as we are./ To discover how to be truthful now/ Is the reason I follow this star.”

The Man of Letters came to the understanding that “We anticipate or remember but never are./ To discover how to be living now/ Is the reason I follow this star.”

The Ethicist learned this, to his dismay: “But arriving at the Greatest Good by introspection/ And counting the Greatest Number, left no time for affection,/ Laughter, kisses, squeezing, smiles;/ And I learned why the learned are as despised as they are./ To discover how to be loving now/ Is the reason I follow this star.”

To them, the Star replies, as it does to all who want to be Orthodox in the way that transcends suphrosyne:

Descend into the fosse of Tribulation,
Take the cold hand of Terror for a guide;
Below you in its swirling desolation
Hear tortured Horror roaring for a bride:
O do not falter at the last request
But, as the huge deformed head rears to kill,
Answer its craving with a clear I Will;
Then wake, a child in the rose-garden, pressed
Happy and sobbing to your lover’s breast.

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3 thoughts on “Summons of the Star

  1. After reading a bit more elsewhere, and still being impressed by this very heavy poetry, I am baffled in general by this poet’s life and personality. One of the others with whom he was associated, Stephen Spender, has been a favorite poet of mine, based on just a few very special poems that he wrote. But I admit, that lives such as they led were far from what most people, including myself, can relate to. Such is the nature of genius when it enters humanity, to be contrasted with the nature of Jesus when He enters humanity. The one may radiate light for whose eyes alone it was meant, and the Other not only radiates, and for all, but actually IS the Light.

    Again, thanks for sharing this with us, Fr Milovan.

  2. An incredible poem, and an incredible post. This is the best ‘Christmas gift’ I have received this year.

    I have never paid Auden serious attention, but now I am avid to read this great poem which you have brought to our attention.

    A profound ‘thank you’ and prayer for a ‘blessed Nativity’ feast.

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