Analysis: After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

Introduction

In the following I will discuss the poem After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics (1965) by W. H. Auden. This analysis will be from point of view of a non-specialist of literary theory, meaning that the aim is not to elaborate on theoretical insights of literary study but to discuss aspects of broader relevance of this poem. In doing so I first will provide a brief overview about the content and style of his poem in particular to then, in a second step, highlight these findings as being embedded in the general socio-cultural framework of its time connected to Auden’s style of writing on a more general level. These insights finally shed light on how and by what kind of audience his poem After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics can function.

1. Style and content of After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

In this section I investigate the structure and style of Auden’s poem to then lay down his general argument. Thus, on a most general level, the poem is about the human habit to acquire knowledge in the domain of physics, representing a mechanic perspective which is contrasted to our human condition.

The poem consists of six verses which all are eight lines long. There does not seem to be a rhyme scheme following a fixed or ordered logic; however, in each verse the words at the end of the line have a rhymed counterpart in the same verse. This absence of an ordered rhyme scheme in addition to the author’s seemingly arbitrary comma placement makes the understanding of the poem rather difficult. This becomes especially obvious when reading the poem aloud. Furthermore, Auden uses a variety of metaphors which require an active reading of the poem; this means that the reader, in order to properly make sense of his work, needs to actively transfer those terms from the work as a whole to a broader framework of knowledge. This aspect also is valid in terms of Auden’s habit of combining words which in the ordinary sense do not stand in relation to each other (e.g. ‘futility and grime’ in the first verse or ‘quiet Euclidean space’ in the fourths verse). As a result the reader of Auden’s poem cannot be a passive recipient but must be an active translator.

Thus, in the first verse Auden, on the one hand, emphasizes that physical knowledge exists in a Kuhnian paradigm, meaning that physicists are never completely sure if their acquired knowledge as part of the Truth is true. On the other hand, if physicists were sure about this knowledge to be true, we would have ‘a better time’ than dying stars in the universe (‘Greater Nebulae’) or atoms in our brain. However, since atoms are generally understood as not being feeling creatures, the connection between them as having ‘a good time’ and physicists as acquiring aspects of the Truth appears to be ironic.

In the second verse Auden contrasts our human existence to that of particles. In this sense human existence is characterized by vital elements of love, whereas in the universe of physics (particles) those feelings do not exist because they operate according to mechanic forces. This kind of existence is presented by Auden as being worse. This aspect also becomes obvious in the third verse when he thanks God for the ‘sufficient mass’ of humans. For this enables us to be all at one place and hence having a rather fixed identity. Particles, in contrast, exist according to the rules of quantum physics at multiple places at once and are therefore lacking identity but rather are an ‘indeterminate gruel’.

In the fourth verse Auden addresses the aspect that we as human beings perceive the world and the universe from a geocentric view in the context of straight forward physical knowledge. However, in referring back to the first verse, he emphasizes that our common world actually is the reverse; it is characterized by ‘so-and-so’s’, uncertainties and exploded myths. As a result of this paradoxical approach to the world we cannot feel ‘at home’ or comfortable. The fifths verse is connected to this notion in the sense that Auden stresses that our human passion for acquiring (physical) knowledge about the universe does not help bringing us more close to the actual world, in fact we distance us even more from it; this tendency is even more strong because we do not even clearly know for what in particular we want this knowledge. If we knew this more clearly we would rejoice more in this knowledge and our mind would be freer.

In the sixths verse Auden addresses this aspect of human striving for acquiring knowledge about the universe from a moral point of view: he argues that it embodies a form of hybris in the sense that we as human beings (‘a creature who comes in a median size’) claim to know about the ‘true’ macrocosmos. Moreover, possessing this knowledge brings a certain responsibility, a ‘politicizing nature’ with it we should deal with wisely.

2. Socio-cultural framework of After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

As stressed, on the most general level Auden suggests in his poem a critical view on scientific knowledge and its influence on human behaviour. This topic, as Young-ah Gottlieb in Regions Of Sorrow. Anxiety and Messianism in Hanna Arendt and W. H. Auden (2003) points out, was an aspect of general relevance at the time when Auden wrote this poem. Hence various catastrophic events such as the past war experiences and then, later, feelings such as fear of nuclear annihilation made people aware of the responsibility of scientific findings; Auden belonged to the generation of European and American intellectuals who experienced these catastrophic feelings to then undertake “(…) the task of developing novel – and one might say, responsible – responses to the enormity of the novel phenomena (…)” (Young-ah Gottlieb, 2003, p. 1).

However, even though Auden’s poem can be understood as being placed in this line, at the same time it differs from it. This is because he does not provide any kind of concrete, or clearly elaborated thought; instead, as Porter properly emphasizes: “Ambiguity is at the heart of any Auden poem” (Porter, 2004, p. 132). And more precisely, as Boly finds, this kind of ambiguity “(…) shifts control of its meaning from the intentions of the speaker to the interpretations of his audience” (Boly, 2004, p. 143). This form of ambiguity as identified by both Porter and Boly also was carried forward by my point of the necessarily active reading of the poem as earlier stressed in this analysis. In this sense, the reader of After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics cannot be a passive one but rather must be actively seeking to make sense of the poem.

However, as mentioned by Boly, at the same time he also is attentive to his readers as being not professional critics (p. 147). In this Boly certainly is right, Auden does not use incomprehensible technical terms or presupposing strong knowledge in physics and therefore the layperson or non-scientist reader can make sense of his poetry. However, I argue that the absence of those clearly identifiable physical terms also hampers the understanding of Auden’s poem. Hence, if his work is ambiguous, therefore presupposing a reader who actively interprets, this cannot take place in the first instance if the non-scientist reader cannot identify physical hints because they are not ‘labelled’ as such in terms of technical vocabulary. In this context I especially refer to the third verse, where it says “Though the face at which I stare / While shaving it be cruel / For, year after year, it repels / An ageing suitor, it has, / Thank God, sufficient mass / To be altogether there, / Not an indeterminate gruel / Which is partly somewhere else” (Auden, 1965). A reader who does not have any knowledge of physics here will have problems to draw the connection to quantum physics as implicated by Auden because the necessary vocabulary is missing. But a reader who do has this knowledge Auden has “(…) indirectly invoked the wave nature of matter and Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle as a metaphor for anticipated incapacity in the course of his aging” (Stahl, 1987, p. 62).

3. Conclusion

As argued, Auden’s poem demands an active reader who has a certain (basic) knowledge of physics. In this sense his poetry – at least After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics – is not properly accessible to people lacking this kind of knowledge. However, and that is more important from my point of view, is that even though certain reader might not grasp the author’s intended scientific meaning of this poem, nevertheless another most significant aspect is realized when reading: People are invited to actively think. They should think about science and its relation to our common human life. In this sense Auden breaks up the authority of a scientific worldview that is at the expense of human values. Auden here points to a significant aspect that not only was valuable in the time of the publishing of this poem in the 1960s but still is relevant in today’s world. Maybe it is even more relevant in our ever more flourishing age of the knowledge society.

Literature list

Auden, W. H.

(1965). After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics. Retrieved February 2, 2010 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/poetry/outloud/auden.shtml.

Boly, J. R.

(2004). Auden and modern theory. In Smith, S. (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Porter, P.

(2004). Auden’s English: language and style.In Smith, S. (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stahl, F. A.

(1987). Physics as Metaphor and Vice Versa. Leonardo, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 57-64. Retrieved February 3, 2010 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1578212?cookieSet=1.

Young-ah Gottlieb, S.

(2003). Regions Of Sorrow. Anxiety and Messianism in Hanna Arendt and W. H. Auden. Stanford University Press.

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