Posts Tagged ‘Chester Kallman’

Song without music: Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

auden-christmasW.H. Auden learned of the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, by telephone in August 1941, while he was staying in Rhode Island. The international call was taken by his lover Chester Kallman, who came to Auden’s bedroom and told him they would not be attending a party that evening. Then he told him why.

“Auden was stunned and grieved, not only because he had been very close to his mother all his life. He was already in a state of emotional fragility, having learned just the month before that Kallman, whom he loved and to whom he considered himself married, had been having sex with other men and meant to continue the practice,” writes Alan Jacobs, editor of Princeton University Press’ splendid critical edition of Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Thursday is only the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas – if you haven’t seen the book already (it was published last year), you still have plenty of time to find it before Twelfth Night.

Auden would later write, “When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard” – Jacobs adds, “that experience of isolation was surely made far more intense through its arriving in the midst of hopes already ruined.”

A few weeks after the death, Auden moved to my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, to begin a year of teaching (his daunting course syllabus is here). And shortly after that he was applying to the Guggenheim to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” That long poem was his attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the Roman Empire and in Jewish history, and as an eternal and ever-new event.

His father, a learned and cultivated physician, was confused by the mixture of the past and present in the poem, the modern New York characters and the references to juke-boxes and clocks on the mantlepiece with ancient Judaea. Auden tried to explain in a long letter:

Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental – the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity – that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity – and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been ‘humanized,’ and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.


Inspiration from an Inkling

If a return to the older method seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization – there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

Kind of makes one chuckle, doesn’t it? As one taps on a keyboard to produce a message that, as soon as I press the “publish” button, will be instantly available around the world…

“Auden’s recognition that those last few centuries of the Roman Empire might serve as a mirror for the twentieth-century self-immolation of the West is the initiating insight of the project that would become ‘For the Time Being,'” Jacobs writes. Well, we made it to the twenty-first. The poem was rooted in his reading of Inkling Charles Williams, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others.

Stephen Spender said that the poem “has the power in some of the choruses, of bringing to mind the mighty chorales of Bach.” The poem was set to be set to music composed by Benjamin Britten. It never was. The poem was far too long for that. Only two bits were set to music, and one, “Shepherd’s Song,” was dropped from the poem before it was published. The poem, published at the height of the war in 1944, was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden.

Auden’s prophetic voice: “All forms of knowledge and power have two sides.”

Friday, June 8th, 2012

One of the problems of a large library is that it depends on a fallible sense of memory. I have a visual recollection of where a book might be, and that is my sole form of “organization.”  So naturally, I couldn’t find Alan Ansen‘s The Table Talk of W.H. Auden when I wanted it.  It wasn’t where I remembered seeing it, and therefore will remain in hibernation until it chooses to be found.

The immediate spur to my search was an article in last week’s The Scotsman, an interview with Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor:  “So impressed was Auden by Mendelson’s dedication – he told his long-term partner Chester Kallman ‘I’ve just met a young man who knows more about me than I do’ – that he asked him to become his literary executor. He died two years later, in 1973, aged 66.” Read the whole article here.

I found instead Conversations with Auden by Howard Griffin, another young man who attached himself to the ageing poet.

Now here’s what’s curious.  I was talking earlier today with a technologist about the double-edged sword of modern technology. It can lead to international sharing of medical research – or it can lead to porn addiction.  In that sense it’s like nuclear energy – it can power a nation, or bring us another Hiroshima.

So what did I find on the first page of Griffin’s book?  After discussing the advantages of the modern era, there’s this prophetic exchange:

Griffin: You mean at least we have technological advantages?

Auden:  Yes. The power instruments.  You cannot have advances in science without having the good and bad, without being given a choice. It is always up to men to decide how they are going to use what they have.  With each new invention, the question of free will is resurrected. The first invention of all was the apple – divine knowledge which caused the trouble. The story of Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is a myth to explain history. One must acknowledge its poetic truth, for human beings still seem much like Adam and Eve, blaming things on each other, and desiring to be gods.  Out of their monstrous vanity human creatures want to be their own cause. Adam succumbed to the temptation to eat the apple – but not out of appetite. … The story of the Fall has to be told in mythical terms because it is what conditions history.  In Genesis we do not have a race of people but the first man and woman, and the first thing they do is eat of the tree, an act that begins time and loses them this innocence.  Civilization itself remains neutral and ambiguous.  All forms of knowledge and power have two sides.  As temptations, they can make a man behave either much better or much worse.

Someday I’ll find The Table Talk of W.H. Auden again. Perhaps I’ll even find the syllabus Auden used for his University of Michigan classes, back when he was poet in residence in the 1940s.  I had retrieved this treasure from the university’s archives year’s ago.  Somewhere in the garage, I’m sure.