The Womb and the Word

There is a curious note about the poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973) left by his brother John. For all that he had re-embraced of the Anglo-Catholic Christianity of his childhood, Auden took exception to several dogmas that his brother, a Roman Catholic convert, had willingly accepted. These were the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception. So strongly did he feel about the latter, that he described it to his brother as “making an Honorary Aryan of the Blessed Virgin.”

Auden’s reference to Nazi ideology demonstrates the emotional load that the idea carried for him. At the time he penned these words in the 1950s, the true horrors that resulted from this ideology were being unveiled in a way that must have impacted him deeply, especially given his homosexuality. But it is interesting that Auden elided this with Catholic dogmas about the Mother of Christ. For he was not, by instinct, a theological liberal. His take on dogma was that it was “the right thinking which is to a way of life as its grammar is to a language.” So what was it in the grammar of the Magisterium that caused him to rear up?

Ironically, I think the answer resides in a combination of his resolute opposition to all forms of dualism with a failure of the imagination on the relationship between sexuality and the spiritual life. Yet, Auden is the last person anyone would accuse of a failure of the imagination. I have just been reading his Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, an extraordinary re-configuration of the drama of the Incarnation for modern times. Standing in a frozen field in the midst of the beautiful South Devon countryside, gazing at a flock of sheep gathering against the sharpening cold, I could hear his shepherds speaking:

Clinging like sheep to the earth for protection
We have not ventured far in any direction:
Wean, Child, our ageing flesh away
From its childish way.

Or again, when the shepherds form an ensemble with the Magi to sum up, albeit from a different life experience, the Logos of the Word Incarnate:

O Living Love replacing phantasy
O Joy of life revealed in Love’s creation;
Our mood of longing turns to indication:
Space is the Whom our loves are needed by,
Time is our choice of How to love and Why.

Auden was more than a great poet. He was a poet-philosopher, and he approached theological material with an intellectual capacity more than fit for purpose. But it is undeniable that in his portrayal of Mary, his investigation halts. He seizes on an interesting idea: that she would fear for what her humanity might lend to the child she has given birth to:

Sleep. What have you learned from the womb that bore you
But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?
Sleep. What will the flesh that I gave do for you,
Or my mother love, but tempt you from His will?
Why was I chosen to reach His Son to weep?
Little One, sleep.

The Catholic doctrinalist reading this might be prompted to rear up in turn: “This! This counsel of despair . . . is why the Marian dogmas had to be promulgated!” Perhaps he or she would imagine stuffing into the poet’s Christmas stocking a slim volume, Daughter Zion, written within a few years of Auden’s death in 1973, by a future Pope. Joseph Ratzinger neatly sums up the necessity of the Catholic approach to the Mother of Christ: “Only when it touches Mary and becomes Mariology is Christology itself as radical as the faith of the Church requires.”

Auden’s poetry is, in fact, radical in just this way, laced with an appreciation for what it means to be poor, disenfranchised, homeless, as Alexander McCall Smith has pointed out (who, in his later years, was especially focussed on the need for a home, a meaningful locality, a community devoid of globalism). Auden was driven by empathy for the suffering sinner: he situates his voices in New York dives and the dark pits where vice fails to blot out existential anguish, as the Voices of the Desert near the end of his For the Time Being attest. And the Incarnate Son of God, he knew and had to say, is the most radical response to all this.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety . . .

Truth and anxiety. There, somehow, is the crux of the matter. Auden did not “convert” in the sense of changing his personality. His was an unflinching investigation into the human condition that his poetic calling wrenched out of him, but he knew his own weakness. As Arthur Kirsch put it, faith “expanded the horizons of his mind as well as his heart, and his formidable intelligence, in turn, probed the nature and limits of his Christian belief, animating his continuous quest not only to believe still but to believe again.

We need this kind of poetry, the poetry of anxiety in the process of constant conversion, what has been called Auden’s “negation of negation,” more than ever. But we also need to fill the Mary-shaped hole that even this most sensitive of minds could not adequately broach. You only have to read the passage in For the Time Being where St. Joseph speaks, accepting his bamboozled condition as a kind of penance for the sins of men against women, to know that what lies beneath this lacuna is not misogyny on Auden’s part. Perhaps it is simply the case that any mind, however great, will have spots in its wing mirror where a passing vehicle is not spotted. And in Auden’s defense, the matter is so immense, so mysterious, as to be hard to capture: perhaps especially if you do not share any of the incarnational characteristics of your subject.

Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetic voice seems to break some sort of sound barrier in order to give voice to his soul, does not take us there. The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe makes a fine fist of capturing the cosmic aspect of the Marian doctrines; but it is still dismissed by secular critics as an obligatory devotional.[1] And while the comparison of Mary’s spirit and mission to the fragile skin of the breathable atmosphere around the earth is apt, it is also true that Hopkins does not enter into the existential being of his subject. The question remains: can a Christian poet attempt this at all? Is it even possible to speak of this woman’s faith, of her mentality? How did she experience emotion—was it like the rest of us? And if not, how did it differ? And what language would one have to use in order to do justice to it?

Speaking at Maynooth in Ireland recently, another Jesuit, Br. Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, made some interesting observations about our need for that thing poets do:

It’s this conversation we have, and because we are talking about things bigger than what human words can contain, we ultimately have to use poetry. Even scientific equations are a form of poetry. . . . More than that, poetry stretches your imagination, which is allowing you to then see the universe in a way that you had never seen it before.[2]

If we believe him (and I do), the question arises for anyone eager to see Marian theology—or spirituality, at least—given an adequate voice: are there other poets who have the audacity to approach the Womb containing the Word in this way? I can think of two candidates in particular. They are women, and neither of them has the cultural status of W. H. Auden. Yet, as we come into the final week of Advent and approach the crib we lay such store by, it might be profitable to dip into their work.

The first of these is a contemporary of Auden’s, the British artist, writer, and mystic Caryll Houselander (1901–1954). She actually did not write that much poetry—she is most famous for her book This War is the Passion (she also wrote short stories, and one novel, The Dry Wood). In fact, when Sheed and Ward published her poems in The Flowering Tree, not long after World War II, Houselander referred to them as “rhythms” rather than poems. And yet these, alongside her intensely poetic Marian meditations (contained in The Reed of God and a few other collections published posthumously), authentically touch on the Marian themes.

Houselander portrays Mary as someone who empties herself not because she did not value herself, but because of her desire to know God. She sees her as a human being attuned to the mode in which the Holy Spirit speaks to the heart: a reed through which the divine voice can sing, unimpeded. In particular, Houselander, who had a particular interest in the conjunction between spirituality and psychology, had an original take on the notion of virginity that troubled Auden. In The Reed of God, which interestingly is prefaced by the Akathist Hymn), she puts it this way:

That virginal quality which, for what of a better word, I call emptines . . . is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it was intended.

It is an emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to received water or wine.

It is emptiness like that of the bird’s nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.

Even her non-Marian poems in The Flowering Tree are shot through with Marian echoes. For example, Matthew’s description of Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount.

He dawned on the people,
He did not take them by storm
soft as the blown thistledown’s sowing
the seed of the word was sown.
Each who heard,
knew the light growing within him,
like morning.
Slowly welling,
and filling the empty sky,
before the first song
of the first bird.

For Houselander, the Marian dimension in the life of Christ is (pace Ratzinger) never far away, as in God Abides with Men.

He has given man his crown,
the thorn that is jewelled
with drops of His blood.
He has given him
the seamless garment
of his truth.
He has bound him
in the swaddling bands
of his humility.

And in Litany to Our Lady, the Christ-life, and thus the Eucharistic-life, is intimately bound up with Mary.

Lady, giver of bread,
Field sown by the wind.
Snow white on the field.
Darkness under the snow,

Houselander’s voice comes over as a quiet crocheting of words uttered around the fireside, whilst a good soup fills the room with its fragrance. Perhaps the hardest dogmas are best treated like this, as a form of nourishment that loses its savor if force-fed, even to the hungry. I have a suspicion that it was the chatter of zealots that put Auden off the difficult doctrines. “Sieg Heil” does not cut it as an incentive to holiness. Houselander refers to this herself, in the same breath as she extolls the silence of Advent:

Zealots and triflers and all besides who have crowded the emptiness out of their minds and the silence out of their souls can restore it. At least, they can allow God to restore it and ask Him to do so.

In fact, Auden suppressed his own more zealous moments—witness his rejection of the poem he wrote in New York in 1939, as the Germans invaded Poland, September 1, 1939.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die

This poem, interestingly, was widely circulated after 9/11. For all that its creator had turned his back on it, the poem seemed to have assumed a prophetic half-life beyond its original creation. It was that anguished line, “We must love one another or die,” which proved to be the stumbling block for a more mature Auden. True, it is an illogical assertion, even for a pacifist. Auden’s friend Joseph Brodsky suggested that “We must love one another or kill” would have been more accurate. Unless you apply the line spiritually . . . in which case, it arguably touches on the very doctrine that Auden found so baffling. For only someone who is without sin is able to love perfectly: and the forgiveness of sins is of course what saves us from death in all its forms.

Whatever the ins and outs of this, the voices that enunciate the phenomenology of the Immaculate will perhaps always come across as slighter than their masculine counterparts. But those voices are out there, even in our day. I will end with a contemporary example, that of the award-winning poet Sally Read, whose first collection since her conversion to the Catholic faith, Dawn of This Hunger, was published a year ago. It is a striking achievement, a closely observed, embodied expression of the poet’s own deeply Marian faith with language that, as Br. Consolmagno put it, draws your attention to things you might not have perceived before. Read’s Incarnation actually provides a fascinating counterpoint to Auden, so I am reproducing it here in its entirety, with permission from the author. No sinner can fully enter into a sinless mind, of course. But it is possible, from the experience of having a womb, to sidle up pretty close to that stable, all the same.

From the remotest dawn, from a yellow eye,
sharper than the eagle’s, that sees each one of us
scuttling in the shadow of the protective wing,
he falls to Earth—blind. Those first nights
the short distance between her breast and face
is as far as he can see. She is his first sight
of the world as man—our one pure sign.
She only knows his Christ-eyes latching
onto hers as fiercely as his gums clamp down
for milk. The future scrabbles, gnaws like rats
through a barn’s corners and its eaves.
But she is transfixed by his skin and insistence
on her as the only visible, only beautiful thing—
the present moment: this is the first lesson of prayer.

[1] The best antidote to this take is the work of Margaret Ellsberg, author of Created to Praise.

[2] Interview with Sarah MacDonald for The Tablet, November 8, 2022.