THR Web Features   /   October 19, 2021

A Vision on a Summer Night

The two recollections of W.H. Auden.

Alan Jacobs

( The Downs Malvern, Colwall, Herefordshire, United Kingdom.)

The Protestant Mystics (1964) is an anthology of writings about intimate spiritual experience by a wide range of Protestant authors, beginning with Martin Luther and John Donne and ending with N.W. Clerk (the pseudonym that C.S. Lewis adopted for his book A Grief Observed). It’s a fascinating collection of texts, but perhaps the most fascinating entry is the book’s introduction, which was written not by the book’s editor, Anne Fremantle, but by the poet W.H. Auden.

It was characteristic of Auden, when given reviews or prefaces or introductions to write, to see the assignment as an opportunity to develop his own thinking about the issues that he believed to be raised by whatever it was he was supposed to be reviewing or introducing. This means that at times he can go rather far afield from what one would think his task is, but his digressions and excursuses are almost always very worthwhile. In this case he lays out a taxonomy of visionary experience, and one of his categories is what he calls the Vision of Agape. He treats this one differently from any of the others, because he includes in it a brief narrative account of an experience “for the authenticity of which I can vouch.” Here is that testimony, somewhat abridged:

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greed and self-regard would return….

The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.

It should be obvious that the only person who could “vouch for the authenticity” of such an experience would be the person who had had it, and that is indeed the case. Auden here describes something that happened to him when he was a teacher at The Downs School in Herefordshire, in 1933, when he was 26 years old. He had never written publicly about the experience before this introduction, which he must have been writing almost exactly 30 years after the events he describes. But, as he says, this was an absolutely pivotal experience for him, and while he never wrote about it as directly as he did in this introduction, he did write about it, soon after the experience occurred, refracted through the medium of poetry. The fascinating thing, to me, is that the younger Auden and the older Auden interpret the experience in very different terms.

(The poem appears in two versions. The original is longer and usually is titled after the poem’s first line: “Out on the lawn I lie in bed.” Auden later revised and condensed the poem and reprinted it with the title “A Summer Night.” I quote the original version below.)

I say that the two accounts interpret the experience differently, but they don’t narrate it in significantly divergent terms. In its early stanzas the poem features one of the most compelling visions in English poetry of a Paradisal moment:

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening,
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
From leaves with all its dove-like pleading
Its logic and its powers:

That later we, though parted then
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

But narration is succeeded by reflection; and the reflection embodied in the poem is—well, an almost flat refusal of the gift which Auden has received. Even as the vision begins to ebb, he considers it as something that has been possible only because he is a member of a relatively prosperous elite: “Our freedom in this English house, / Our picnics in the sun.” And he imagines that those conditions of prosperity will not last forever; indeed, will not last long:

Soon through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river-dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears;
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears:

May this for which we dread to lose
Our privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong;
As through a child’s rash happy cries
The drowned voices of his parents rise
In unlamenting song.

The passage is, when you think about it, rather shocking: Auden has been lifted up into a perfected love for his colleagues, and the only way that he can account for that vision, given his assumptions at that time, is to see it as an unjustifiable privilege. His reflection, then, as opposed to his narration, is strictly and passionately political.

Auden was very much a man of the Left in those days, and involved in the socialist/communist art world, especially through the Group Theatre in London—which in 1934 performed The Dance of Death, a satirical musical he had written in the year of his visionary experience. The primary thought he has about “these evenings when / Fear gave his watch no look” is that they were made possible by conditions of safety and leisure which the majority of the world’s people cannot know. Hence he ends the poem with a vision of the walls that enable the “privacy” of the comfortable “English house” being destroyed by a great flood of social protest and political revolution. He imagines his world dying in this tempest, and he imagines rejoicing in that destruction: singing an “unlamenting song” about the end of his world.

Absolutely none of this is present in the account that Auden gave three decades later. The return to the Christian faith he mentions in his prose account happened about six years after his experience “out on the lawn,” so by the time he wrote his introduction to The Protestant Mystics he had been a Christian for nearly a quarter-century. During that time his politics changed also: He would never abandon liberalism, but even in the thirties he had never embraced communism, and became increasingly skeptical not just of revolutionary movements but also of all schemes of political change that did not take due cognizance of our inheritances.

From that later vantage point, his reflection on his mystical experience comes to coincide with its narration. He accepts the terms on which the “power” presented itself: that power did not offer itself as as an occasion for reflecting on injustice and damnable privilege, but rather more simply as an illumination, a moment in which it was possible for him to see and feel just what it means to love his neighbor as himself—because, as he says, at that moment he was doing it.

I tend to think of that 1964 reflection not so much as a repudiation of his earlier account, but rather a transcending of it. It is, I believe, Auden’s way of saying that a political revolution that is not informed and inspired by agape, by love of one’s neighbor, will probably eventuate in a reconstitution of old inequities and old injustices in a new form. He might even be saying that the reformation of society must begin with the reformation of the heart. Though perhaps that is going too far: Perhaps the older Auden merely wants to have the humility to accept the terms on which agape offers itself.

Something that those of us who are hommes d’un age or femmes d’une certaine age—I am older now than Auden was when he wrote his prose account—always need to remember is that while it is possible to learn much as one grows older it is also possible to forget things that one once knew. When I was twenty years old I thought the most powerful book I had ever read was William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—a book which I now find nearly unreadable. But I am not at all certain that my current lack of sympathy for Faulkner’s novel marks an increase in intellectual power, aesthetic judgment, or emotional maturity. It may be that I was at age twenty receptive to certain frequencies of truth and meaning that I have since become insensitive to, just as there are sounds, low and high, I once could hear but now cannot. It’s hard to be sure.

When I read the two accounts of Auden’s experience, separated by thirty years of living, thirty years of immensely varied and wide-ranging experience, I don’t think that I am required simply to choose between them. Certainly I have an instinctive sympathy for the view of the older Auden: I have too often seen earnest and well-intentioned projects meant to bring the Earthly Paradise closer lead not to an increase in justice but rather a decrease in patience and charity. And yet I also admire the willingness of the young Auden to question his bliss—to situate that bliss within an international context of social, political, and economic disorder. This did happen to him, after all, at the height of the Great Depression. That he is not blind to that is commendable. Still, I keep coming back to the idea that gifts such as the one he received that evening do not come often, and perhaps, even if one must situate them in their proper social context, should always be received with gratitude.