Secondary Worlds

JOB recently quoted Auden for an epithet to his fine poem, and mentioned in the comments that he’d been reading some essay by Randal Jarrel on Auden. Secondary Worlds is a collection of essays by W.H. Auden first published in 1968, no longer in print, but available from good libraries everywhere. Many consider Auden’s later poetry to be thin gruel, but whatever quality or attention he may not have maintained in his verse may well have been reserved for his essays. Originally delivered at the University of Kent in Canterbury as the inaugural T.S. Eliot lectures, these four essays specifically address what Tolkien termed the ‘Secondary world.’ As Auden describes Tolkien’s terms:

Present in every human being are two desires, a desire to know the truth about the primary world, the given world outside ourselves in which we are born, live, love, hate and die, and the desire to make new secondary worlds of our own or, if we cannot make them ourselves, to share in the secondary worlds of those who can.” (49)

The first three lectures are each concerned with a particular genre; The Martyr as Dramatic Hero, The World of Sagas (dealing with the epics of Iceland in particular), and The World of Opera. These should be of interest to almost anybody interested in these particular arts. The last lecture, Words and the Word, is specifically concerned with a topic that lurks in the background, sometimes further, sometimes nearer, in the three previous essays: particular problems and opportunities raised by Christianity (the Word) for poets and their secondary worlds (Words). This should be of interest to just about everybody. Here are a few special selections:

Every human being … is at one and the same time both an individual member of the biological species, Homo Sapiens, which came into being by the process of natural selection, and a unique person, with a unique perspective on the world, endowed with a consciousness which is a Trinity-in-Unity. As St. Augustine said: ‘I am willing and knowing; I know that I am and will; I will to be and to know.’ The human condition is further complicated by the fact that man is a history and culture making creature, who by his own efforts has been able to change himself after his biological evolution was complete. Each of us, therefore, has acquired what we call a ‘second nature’, created by the particular society and culture into which we happen to have been born.” (119)

“To say that a poem is a personal utterance does not mean that it is an act of self-expression. The experience a poet endeavors to embody in a poem is an experience of a reality common to all men; it is only his in that this reality is perceived from a perspective which nobody but he can occupy. What by providence he has been the first to perceive, it is his duty to share with others. ” (131)

And Auden then quotes George MacDonald (Victorian Congregationalist minister and author of Phantastes), for a theological explanation:

In every man there is an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only may enter. There is also a chamber in God himself into which none can enter but the one, the peculiar man – out of which chamber that man has to bring revelation and strength to his brethren. That is that for which he was made – to reveal the secret things of the Father.’ (131)

Later he quotes from “The Future of Belief,” by Leslie Dewart:

God does not send a message in place of Himself. He comes in person to deliver his message, and moreover, his message is not other than Himself.

The ‘Word’ that He send is an utterance only in the sense that it proceeds from Him, but not in the sense that what is uttered is other than Himself.

What He communicates to us would not be Himself unless that which is communicated proceeded from Him in Himself. Thus the Word of God is not only with God, but the Word was God.

The Christian God is not both transcendent and immanent. He is a reality other than being Who is present to being, by which presence He makes being to be.

This last statement strikes me as extraordinary. Isn’t it Aquinas himself who has taught us to conceptualize God as pure Being, transcendent and immanent? This runs against everything we’ve inherited from the western metaphysical tradition, going all the way back to the Pre-Socratics. Aside from its metaphysical implications, there seems to be a washing of hands here in regard to the tradition by which we understand creation as incarnate. And yet Dewart is also indebted to this tradition, for without it such a bold renunciation could not be made. Or so it seems to me. It also seems to me difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a ‘Who’ that does not participate in being, but that’s at least part of what makes the statement so arresting.

Anyway, these are just a few of the many treasures to be found among Auden’s essays, and Secondary Worlds is no exception.


  1. Rufus McCain says

    Thanks, I just ordered it from the library.

    Check this out.

  2. Thank you for that, and the reminder that I must start using a library.

  3. Quin,

    I read "The Dyer's Hand" and couldn't put it down.

    I think you're right about his becoming more of essayist in the second half of his career – although I suspect many critics were as equally perturbed by his going over to the "dark side" (i.e. Christianity) after a larkishly egalitarian life of dissipation…

    Also, his dumping Merry Olde for the Colonies probably didn't sit well with them…

    I shall keep my eye out for this book.

    I hate to keep going back to this essay – but it really is that good – it would be interesting to see how the tension between "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in Eliot fits in with what Auden says about the tension between human nature and the forces of culture working to produce the poet's voice, stamp, what-have-you.

    Also, reading Donoghue on The Emily, his thoughts add a further dimension to this notion – roughly speaking, he seems to think The Emily had no need of this secondary world – or at least very little of it to intincture her imagination, thus her inconsistencies, her reclusive nature and her largely interrogative poems; but also thus her perspicacity, her seemingly home-grown prosody (influenced more by New England hymnals than aught else), and her awfully modern diction, rhetoric and "thought."

    I will try to post on this more later…


  4. Sorry, that's "tincture" I meant.

    Must. Have. More. Coffee.


  5. Jonathan Webb says

    Amazing Quin. Thanks.

  6. ImeldaJean says

    But what if there are no good libraries where I live?

    Seriously, though, you've touched on a number of things here that deserve further reflection. Auden says "if we cannot make them ourselves, to share in the secondary worlds of those who can" – yep. That is what is going on when I read a poem like "The Suspicion of Statistics in a Seaside Village." It's helpful to have someone frame it so neatly!

    This idea: "By which presence He makes being to be" is breathtaking. "Our presence in God's life," as a priest recently put it, and the link from Rufus says it very well too.

    Metaphors fall down. Isn't that what Auden is saying about poetry, that it is an attempt to work out, as best we can, this ineffable truth? JOB, little help?

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