2006 Book Award
Text of citation given in
to Arthur Kirsch as winner of the CCL
Book of the Year Award for his book,
Auden and Christianity (Yale UP, 2005)
It is time to remember the Christianity of W. H. Auden, and Arthur Kirsch’s marvelously lucid Auden and Christianity helps us to do just that. One of the great poets of the twentieth century, Auden also became a pugnacious and original spokesman for Christianity, its relation to art and—inseparably, for Auden—its relation to everyday life. Yet Auden’s faith usually has been sidelined in critical discussions of his work, perhaps understandably by non-Christians but less forgivably by those of us who care about and deeply believe in the connections between faith and literature.
Arthur Kirsch has changed the terms of the discussion. He delivers what committee member Melissa Bailes calls “an impressive, innovative, and thoroughly-researched exploration of Auden’s spiritual life.” As she describes it, “From the influence of St. Augustine to Shakespeare to Kierkegaard, as well as numerous others, Kirsch demonstrates Auden’s gravitation to, and incorporation of, the particularly Christian elements of these writers in his own works, commentaries on art, and in his daily life.” Bailes continues by noting that “[i]n communicating that life, Kirsch draws on the tensions felt by Auden between his Christianity and his homosexuality, his body and his mind, his genius and his humanity, while always maintaining an equally firm focus on Auden’s efforts to reconcile these tensions through the hope, mercy, love, and forgiveness ever-present to his conception of Christian faith.”
Indeed, in Kirsch’s unusual critical text the poet’s own words are fore-grounded to such a degree that Kirsch himself becomes nearly invisible—or rather becomes a medium through which we feel that we directly hear the voice of Wystan Hugh Auden in his wit, his impatience with artistic pretension, and his deeply loving and deeply Christian insights into subjects ranging from classical Greek thought, to Shakespeare’s characters, to modern culture. Kirsch's transparency is all the more impressive, as committee member Carole Lambert notes, in that he refers to himself in the Introduction as an “agnostic non-Christian”; then, however, he steps back and organizes his great knowledge of Auden’s poetry, critical essays, lectures, and unpublished writings in such a way as to let Auden speak for himself.
The gifts of those words stem, first and foremost, from Auden’s own firm conviction that, as he wrote in an unpublished essay, “One may like or dislike Christianity, but no one can deny that it was Christianity and the Bible which raised Western literature from the dead” (77). Our understanding of Auden is enriched by his elaborations upon the significance of Incarnational theology—a concept which became a cliché for religious-minded modernists of the '40s and '50s but which is shown to be more than academic in Auden’s poems and life. And Kirsch gives us the gift of more deeply appreciating Auden’s famous themes, such as the inevitability of suffering (about which, as we will recall, the Old Masters were never wrong), and the importance of gratitude, of “count[ing] your blessings.” One of those blessings here includes the poet’s abiding love of Shakespeare, with sharp insights into such topics as the worldliness of Antony and Cleopatra and the humanity of Falstaff.
But finally this book’s supreme donation lies in the reiterated statement by W. H. Auden—who announced as a boy, “I am going to be a great poet,” and actually became one—that the artist should not “take himself too seriously.” That “poetry makes nothing happen,” as he wrote in one of his most famous poems, never diminishes the poet’s imperative to praise. But it does mean that, as Kirsch concludes and as all literate Christians should keep in mind, “poetry is not magical or sacred” (170). In fact, Auden wrote, art “is, in the profoundest sense, frivolous. For one thing, and one thing only, is serious: loving one’s neighbor as oneself.”
2006 Book Award Committee
Hope Howell Hodgkins, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Carole Lambert, Azusa Pacific University
Melissa Bailes University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.