Around quarter to midnight I wanted to quote Auden and I couldn’t remember the word. It was “clever”: “As the clever hopes expire/of a low dishonest decade.” Our hosts of the evening didn’t have much poetry written after about 1900 and their one anthology that might have done didn’t have September 1, 1939. Nor is it in his collected shorter poems, though I don’t remember it or even read it as a long one. It’s hardly epic; only just about perfect.By the time I had run it down, I had read a lot more of his poetry than I set out to do: difficult to think of a better start to the year. And I had also found a remarkable piece of literary criticism: his review, in the New York Times, of The Return of the King. Auden was a huge fan of Tolkien’s, which I find unexpected, and what he wrote about the treatment of good and evil in fantasy is worth discussion:
To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.
This seems to me a wonderfully shrewd explanation of the way in which Tolkien is more involving than Milton emotionally. I can’t imagine reading Tolkien aloud for the sake of the language (I mean that almost literally: the words of some poems demand to be spoken) and I think that is the final test of poetry; but neither can I imagine anyone reading Paradise Lost to find out how it ends.
The first paragraph of Auden also repays admiring attention. He puts into three sentences one of the problems which the incarnation is supposed to solve in Christian thought. In fact they fit into the last sentence and a half: “physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. [yet] the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”
Auden puts it in a way that doesn’t mention God, and I think the problem can be understood without reference to Her. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it couldn’t. But I don’t think it’s a universal. That is to say, there are people and cultures to whom it appears wrong or absurd to say that “the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”
(For an experiment, I am crossposting this on the Guardian site, to see what difference it makes to the comments. The observant reader will have noted that it has no moral, and no bearing on the existence or otherwise of god, and may even feel these matters need no further comment)