Making, Knowing, and Judging

Making, Knowing and Judging

While the title of this essay raise expectations about (natural) scientific knowledge production, this is not all what this essay is about. Rather it is about what it takes to become a good poet. A young poet should write (Make) ‘imaginary’ poems; Know work of other (with a special focus on one ‘master’; and become able to Judge his own work (the ‘Censor’).

For our quest to find a connection between Auden and science this text is therefore of little interest. At least, if we limit our understanding of science to beta sciences. After all, this essay is the inaugural lecture Auden delivered before the University of Oxford, and as such also of interest when looking at the broader field of sciences.

Nonetheless there are two issues want to address shortly here. The first has to do with the para-text with which Auden opens this essay/lecture, and in which he quotes H.D. Thoreau. Since it is not the first time I see Thoreau’s name (Auden also quotes him in The Poet & The City) he must have been important to Auden. Second issue concerns Auden’s view on art criticism.

Let’s start with Thoreau. Henry David Thoreau, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, was, among other things, a poet and a writer. As Auden acknowledges in the Foreword of The Dyer’s Hand, it is not easy for a poet to make a living from writing alone. A struggle which Thoreau has known as well, especially in the beginning of his career during which he mainly supported himself with teaching jobs (Richardson, 1986). Bur Thoreau was also a naturalist and an environmental historian; it is likely that this aspect of Thoreau’s work appealed to Auden. However there are distinct differences between Auden’s and Thoreau view on the natural world and on ecology (a term which was coined only after Thoreau’s death) (Emig, 2004).

A closer look at the two Thoreau quotes I happened to come across in The Poet & The City and Making, Knowing, and Judging shows that in these cases Auden does only refer to Thoreau’s thinking about the art of writing and poetry. (To help you recall:

‘There is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting an honest living. Neither the New Testament not Poor Richard speaks to our condition. One would never think, from looking at literature, that this question had ever disturbed a solitary individual’s musing’ H. D. Thoreau (in The Poet & The City)


‘The art of life, of a poet’s life, is, not having anything to do, to do something’ H. D. Thoreau (in Making, Knowing, and Judging))   

It seems therefore plausible that Auden, although to some extend probably also feeling related to, and reacting upon, Thoreau’s ideas about nature, was also strongly influenced by Thoreau’s views on the lives of an artist.

The second element I wanted to address after reading Making, Knowing, and Judging concerns Auden’s view on art criticism. Earlier I posted a comment on the blog about Auden’s poem ‘Pseudo-Questions’ (1969). I argued there that according to Auden the artist (and his personal life) should be seen separated from this work. This claim is repeated in Making, Knowing, and Judging (whereas the latter was written 13 years before the poem it is in fact the other way around). Auden says: ‘He [the art critic (or the critic’s critic)] will know, for example, that knowledge of an artist’s life, temperament and opinions is unimportant to an understanding of his art.’

            This leaves us an open question about our own work: Should we investigate Auden’s life in our attempt to understand his work; and his connection with science?

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

Emig, R. (2004). Auden and Ecology. In S. Smith (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden (pp. 212-225). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richardson, R.D. Jr. (1986). Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkely,CA: University of California Press.


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