The Poet & The City

As it is the intention of this module to look at the relationship between Auden and Science, this is also what I will focus on more in this analysis. This means that I will, for now, not go too much into the issue of work vs. labour, nor into Auden’s view on the relation between arts and politics.

If we are looking at Auden’s view on Science, its role in society, and its influence on Arts, this text provides us with a very clear answer: Science has taken the upper hand in society and has pushed out the arts. Of course the arts have not altogether disappeared, Auden himself is just one example, but already in 1939 Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (quoted in Reeves, 2004). Perhaps for that reason science has become more influential. Auden says that: ‘our present Weltanschauung (…) [has] made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be’ (Auden, 1962, p. 78).  In the four aspects Auden lists as causes for this three are directly related to science and technology, and the fourth is, I believe, an indirect result of scientific progress. Without copying Auden’s nice ‘titles’ of the causes, literal quotes from the first three aspects make my point (pp. 78-79):

1)      ‘Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be’

2)      ‘Modern science has destroyed our faith in the naïve observation of our senses: we cannot, it tells us, ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular human purpose we have in view.’

3)      ‘Technology, with its ever-accelerating transformation of man’s way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now.’

The fourth aspect, in which Auden makes a first connection to ‘The Public’ (following Kierkegaard) at first sight, might seem a societal rather than scientific change. However Auden blames scientific and technological developments for this change in society in which there is not longer a space for the individual (hero).

But at the same moment when the work of the artist is made more difficult because his subjects are disappearing, as is the case in the above, the artist also experiences a loss of audience. Auden blames science and technology for this too, mainly by means of mass-media which has turned the more active ‘crowd’ into a passive ‘public’.

Before reading till the end of page 83 I immediately wrote down the comment that perhaps art has not disappeared, but rather its form has changed. A few lines later Auden takes away this argument by claiming that mass media does not offer art though, but entertainment. While I think there can be no doubt that most mass media is indeed entertainment I am not sure whether there is no art in it at all.

Here we stumble upon a though question namely: what is art? I will not get in this discussion here (I am too ignorant to even be able to) but what I did notice is that Auden often talks about art, and the artist, when talking only about poetry. At some points he may want to include other forms of art too, but on a more general level he seems to ignore them. Poetry, as a form of art, may have indeed lost some of its influence due to the mass media.

I final note which I want to make here about The Poet & The City is Auden’s claim that the ‘gratuitous’ and the ‘utile’ should be combined into something which is ‘both functional and beautiful’ (Auden, 1962, p. 75). Auden seems to claim here that art is beautiful whereas technology is functional and the two cannot be combined. I think this is a frustration which both sides will recognize. Technology has often only produced ugly functional objects, while art is often merely beautiful with little or none practical utility. From a historical perspective architecture has always combined both, however with the industrialization architecture also lost a lot of its beauty. Nonetheless functionalistic architecture can also be aesthetically pleasing, as shown for example by Auden’s contemporary L. Mies van der Rohe. With the rise of Design Engineering as a profession, I believe, there has become a general trend in combining the technical with the beautiful (this roughly started at the beginning of the 20th century). Likewise many modern artists make use of complicated technologies to create interactive art. However, these are not the kind of artists Auden refers to, and perhaps it is harder to combine poetry with the functional than it is for other forms of art.  

Auden, W.H. (1962). The Dyer’s Hand: and other essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Reeves, G. (2004). Auden and Religion. In S. Smith (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden (pp. 188-199). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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