Natural Linguistics – The Power of speech

If fish do not talk to each other “(…) what is it keeps them in line?” (Auden, 1969, Natural Linguistics). Maybe we never come to reveal this mystery, maybe fish just have a genuinely different nature of pronouncing their ownhood that we, as human beings, cannot imagine just because it is speech that is the dominant force in our lives.

In a way Auden condemns the (destructive) power of speech, for “(…) If they [fish] have never laughed, at least they have never talked drivel, / never tortured their own kind for a point of belief, / never marching to war (…)”. Here, Auden seems to imply that the corruption of language is equalized with the corruption of thought; and if thought is corrupted, there is no possibility of “enlightenment” anymore and it even can be replaced by brutality (war) (Auden in Young-ah Gottlieb, 2003, p. 5). In this sense Auden, as a writer, understood himself as being responsible for the defence of language against the threat of corruption (pp. 5-6). As such, to take over responsibility for our creations, be it verbs or technologies like atom bombs, seems to be a very important conviction or even mission of him.

In this context Smith tells about a seemingly crucial occasion in Auden’s life having formed this belief: In 1939 Auden spoke at a dinner in New York that was organized in order to raise money for Spanish refugees. His speech was a great success it was then that “’I [Auden] suddenly thought I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring. I just felt covered with dirt afterwards’” (Auden in Smith, 2004, p. 2). Thus, Auden was very much aware that his poetry principally could have a similar effect. In this sense the ‘White Magic’ of poetry could turn into the verbal ‘Black Magic’of propaganda which is about enchantment as a way of securing domination over others (p. 3).

Auden famously wrote in 1939, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ but he also wrote in the same piece that it is a ‘way of happening’ (Auden in Reeves, 2004, p. 188). In this sense poetry is not ethically neutral for it compels to exercise choice: “Poetry reads us as we read it. It becomes a parable of our freedom to choose, or of our moral being. How we receive poetry depends on our predisposition” (Reeves, 2004, p. 191). This means, for Auden, poetry or speech never can reach the Truth in an essentialist sense. And since this is the case, at the very minimum, “[i]t is the duty of everyone of us, not only to ourselves but to future generations of men, to have a clear understanding of what we mean when we use […] words (…)” (Auden, 1938, Morality in an Age of Change). Thus, to deliberately reflect of words used and the potential power or results these words can bring with them is a significant moral conviction for Auden and his profession as a writer. However, at the same time he holds the Christian belief that an idea can be absolutely bad but a person never can be. In this sense there is hope for every body to be ‘good’ in the Christian sense.

In Natural Linguistics Auden seems to aim at making aware of this moral responsibility that comes along with using words, with talking to each other. In this sense fish may not be as “dumb” as we believe them to be, because they may not be able to talk to each other (a sign of intelligence) but they also do not march to war and torture each other.


Reeves, G.

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

Smith, S. (Ed.)

(2004). The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Smith, S. (Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

W. H. Auden

(1938). Morality in an Age of Change. In W. H. Auden. Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse. Vol. l 1926-1938. Mendelson, E. (Ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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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