Auden’s ‘The Way’

At one point in “The Quest,” his modernist version of a quest romance told in 20 sonnets, the poet W.H. Auden derides occult fascinations as “an architecture for the odd.”

The particular sonnet, which in some editions is titled “The Tower,” but in Auden’s official Collected Poems is simply called number “IX,” concludes with a warning from magicians caught in their own tower:

Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:
Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.

Contemporary pop astrology is one of those towers, as Auden might call it. The zodiac is a carving up of the night sky according to real geometry, with each of the twelve signs occupying a perfect 30°, which lends it a mathematical credibility and grounds it in things we might consider “real.” Pop astrology is not real. Once upon a time, the zodiac was a coordinate system that was employed to ground observers in a spot on the real planet Earth (if this star is in the sky at this angle I must be in Iowa) at a particular time at night (if this particular star is in the sky at this angle it must be autumn; further, it must be 1:00 a.m. Now, how did I wind up in Des Moines?) and so it was very useful. The sky was every traveler’s GPS. The zodiac was one way of reading it.

The belief that there is a connection between things happening on Earth and things happening in the night sky at the same time is such a seductive one that it has transcended human eras, societies, religions, and politics. Dictators and democrats alike have believed in auspicious and inauspicious times to begin initiatives or end policies. (Or lives.)

It is understandable that we humans would think of ourselves so non-humbly, that we would see ourselves not only as the conclusion to nature’s long eternal statement but that we would view ourselves as not merely a conclusion, a period mark, but as THE conclusion, an exclamation point. We are the one who knocks. We aren’t much, but we’re all we think about. In the universal scheme of things, however, humanity’s history may not even show up as a comma in eternity’s sentences. We are not the point of all existence; we are the point of our own existence, and that is all any of us really need to know.

And that is just fine. Nature or the Big You Know Who Upstairs granted us a wonderful gift, life, for no reason at all, which is the definition of grace.

The zodiac is as attractive as it is, even for those who recognize astrology as a human attempt to think like a god, because it contains and describes just about every human flaw and foible and positive attribute and success in such a compact container that it makes almost every human type seem predicted and even predictable. It appeals to writers for those same reasons, writers who were Jungian long before Jung existed. People born on November 18 (my birth date; it was a Monday, at dinnertime, 41.7000° N latitude) may carry with them certain tendencies and characteristics, or they may not, and the beautiful thing about astrology is that both of those statements—we November 18ers may be similar AND we may not be similar at all—are equally true. There is no need, or way, to add to such a comprehensive package.

In skies far from here, our sun might be a part of a constellation dictating zodiacal decisions on some other planet, in alien eyes wondering up at a night sky very different from and yet very similar to ours.

Sonnet number XIV of Auden’s cycle “The Quest” breaks with the previous sonnets and their preoccupation with classical sonnet structures—Petrarchan, Shakespearian—and is written in a couplet form. It asks a question that is difficult for both skeptics and believers to answer: “[H]ow reliable can any truth be that is got/By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?” In some editions the poem is titled “The Way.”

Fresh addenda are published every day
To the encyclopedia of the Way,
Linguistic notes and scientific explanations,
And texts for schools with modernised spelling and illustrations.
Now everyone knows the hero must choose the old horse,
Abstain from liquor and sexual intercourse,
And look out for a stranded fish to be kind to:
Now everyone thinks he could find, had he a mind to,
The way through the waste to the chapel in the rock
For a vision of the Triple Rainbow or the Astral Clock,
Forgetting his information comes mostly from married men
Who liked fishing and a flutter on the horses now and then.
And how reliable can any truth be that is got
By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?
—W.H. Auden, XIV, The Quest

One of Auden’s lessons for this reader is the necessity of skepticism, including about my own skepticism.

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This is a revision in several ways of a piece from almost two years ago.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 25 asks us to reflect on the word, “Prophecy.”

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