Archaeology

I was not sure I we are still expected to post our thoughts on poems even though there will be a presentation…

Furthermore, my apologies: This initially planned very brief analysis turned out to be rather elaborated – anybody who feels bored by its lengths may do so by good cause

As Jeremias will present his analysis of Auden’s poem Archeology (1973) in class I am not going to contextualize it or provide any additional information here. I will only lay down my thoughts as they emerged while reading.

In the title of this poem Auden already addresses the main topic he is going to deal with: It is archaeology, the study of past human cultures through recovery and analysis of material culture and environmental data. In the first stanza Auden evokes the stereotypical picture of archaeologists at work; they dig into the soil in search of past signs of life. What they detect are dream-like hints to past lives that no longer have a connection to our lives here and now (Stanza two). On account of this, archaeologists actually cannot prove or tell anything about these past lives. As Auden says, this makes them “(…) lucky man!” (Stanza three). But how can this make them lucky? Is not the very aim of an archaeologist to tell something ‘true’ about past life? Furthermore, why should we are unlucky if we can prove that some past life really existed in a certain form?

At this stage of the poem, I argue, these questions cannot be answered satisfyingly. Only in regard to the poem as a whole one could detect a more proper answer. However, it is because Auden here does not come up with a ‘ready-made’ answer that the reader becomes curious and starts actively thinking what he could mean in this context. In this sense I would regard the first three stanzas to be a kind of introduction to the general topic of the poem.

In the following stanzas, namely from stanza four to twenty Auden provides a more detailed elaboration of socio-cultural and environmental knowledge and its meaning for humans (Stanza four to thirteen). He also elaborates on the meaning and usefulness of myths and related rites for humans (Stanza fourteen to eighteen) to then close with a moral-religious statement of their application (Stanza nineteen to twenty). However, interestingly, he no longer directly refers to archaeology as such anymore; he rather discusses the meaning of knowledge and how humans use it. It is only from stanza twenty-one to twenty-three that he directly refers back to archaeology as such. At first sight this approach appears somewhat confusing to the reader and only in the last part from stanza twenty-one to twenty-three (coda) he directly refers back to the topic of archaeology; which then is connected to the previous stanzas by a moral calling.

As Auden states in stanza nine, “Knowledge may have its purposes / but guessing is always / more fun than knowing”. He elaborates on this idea by referring to death. Humans do actually not truly know that nature of dying or what exactly happens when we humans die (e.g. do we keep on ‘existing’ in Paradise?). Since we do not really know what factually happens, this is more ‘fun’ in that we can come up with a great variety of potential explanations not matter whether positive or negative because they are at least entertaining. In difference, what is ‘visually patent’ such as palaces built by powerful man or rulers, soon becomes less interesting (rulers must often have yawned) (Stanza four to nine).

But do visual patents found in the natural environment (‘grain-pits’) and the socio-cultural, man-made environment (‘coin-series’) actually can make us infer a catastrophe? (Stanza ten to eleven). Auden only gives a vague answer to this question (‘Maybe. Maybe’). What is more important for him is another aspect; namely that from these visual findings we only get “(…) a glimpse of what / the Old Ones bowed down to” (Stanza twelve). This means that we can infer what they factually have done, but we cannot get an idea of the actual emotional life of them (‘in what situations they blushed / or shrugged their shoulders’).

In stanza fourteen Auden elaborates on this idea in referring to poets telling myths. In this sense he questions if Norsemen hearing thunder really believed that this sound would be made by the god Thor. Auden says that those people did not seriously believe in Thor hammering, but that this kind of myth rather is used as an excuse to grant ritual actions (Stanza seventeen). This means that the myth of Thor hammering leads to certain rites in order to calm him down. Effectively, those rites are useful for us humans in that it is only in the process of conducting a rite that we truly feel ‘entired’ or complete (Stanza eighteen).

However, Auden emphasizes that this does not mean that “(…) all rites / should be equally fonded: some are abominable” (Stanza nineteen). In this context he refers to the Christian moral system saying that those rites that are about violently killing (‘butchery’) are morally ‘wrong’ (Stanza twenty).

In the last part of the poem Auden directly refers back to his general topic archaeology. He argues that we may draw one moral in this context; namely that “(…) all our school text-books lie” (Stanza twenty-one). Now, if we understand school text-books as claiming to educate children with ‘true knowledge’ in the sense of facts as happened in history, derived from archaeological findings, those never can tell something about the emotional life, the value system, of past living beings (as Auden showed on the example of myths). In this sense, we ‘make’ knowledge, we truly ‘criminalize’ findings in that we claim them to be true in a general sense. But, as Auden states, archaeological findings may tell us something about past lives, but they cannot tell us how and by means of what standards beings lived. As such we cannot and should not judge past lives, by means of those findings. Eventually “(…) goodness is timeless” (Stanza twenty-three). Auden here might refer to goodness being timeless in the Christian sense: for it is only God who can truly judge anybody’s life to be good in a timeless manner because it is him who brought time into being.

Effectively, does Auden here imply that archaeology in claiming to reveal a truly overall knowledge about past lives, actually is a form of hybris?

Advertisements

About this entry