By Frederick Barthelme
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Auden construes his poetry as the site of hopeful exchange between himself and his reader, a “real neighbourhood” where “art and industry and moeurs” can productively cohabit. It answers the evils of passivity and denial of relation with an insistence on active reciprocity. As love always is for Auden, it is tempered by doubt and faithlessness, aware of its own contingency and ephemerality, but like the lover reclining “human on my faithless arm” in Auden’s famously equivocal “Lullaby,” it retains its ideality despite its frailty: “Mortal, guilty, but to me / Entirely beautiful” [CP, 157].
Poetry expresses, and shares in, the human pathos of never truly being able to achieve one’s desire. indb 14 9/8/10 6:32:47 AM Auden in “Atlantis” 15 either fulfilled. The poet, like us, acknowledges the unlikeliness of his success in realizing true understanding, yet he, like us, must keep trying. Rather than despair of poetry’s impotence, the poet presses on, undeceived but optimistic. The force that compels him—and us—is not intellect, says Auden, but love: O when will men show common sense And throw away intelligence, That killjoy which discriminates, Recover what appreciates, The deep unsnobbish instinct which Alone can make relation rich, Upon the Beischlaf of the blood Establish a real neighbourhood Where art and industry and moeurs Are governed by an ordre du coeur?
Indb 10 9/8/10 6:32:47 AM Auden in “Atlantis” 11 acknowledging and relying on an earlier one to help chart his own path. The “choleric enthusiast, / Self-educated William Blake” is also especially important to the writing of this particular poem, as attested by another text he began writing in the summer of 1939 called “The Prolific and the Devourer,” taking its title from Blake’s anatomization of human identity in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell into warring halves, the creator and the consumer.
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