Like so many of his generation, Auden was deeply affected by the rise of the Fascist political philosophy, even though he impulsively rejected it. In particular, Auden experienced first-hand that expression of Fascism found in the Spanish Falangists. No less troublesome, and perhaps a great deal more troublesome, was the Fascism of the the German Nazis and the lemming-like attitude of ordinary citizens who “made no pretense of believing in justice and liberty for all, and attacked Christianity on the grounds that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings, not for the ‘healthy blood of the master race.’”[i] Auden consistently distrusted the State as the source of value and Law, for he knew that the State could not nurture the spiritual component of man; it rather tended to sacrifice it.
For without a cement of blood(it must be human, it must be innocent)no secular wall will safely stand.
Even the unbelieving Auden felt that the State tended toward self-idolatry or idolatry of mammon. The threat such tyranny presented as the basis of law was historically ubiquitous and always a temptation for man. This anti-state animus is certainly present in that Auden who flirted with materialisms and anarchism. The disdain for the Leviathan of Hobbes is found, for example, in Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron”:
Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;
His many shapes and names all turn us pale,
For he’s immortal, and to-day he still
Swinges the horror of his scaly tail.
. . . .
Whenever [man] endorses Hobbes’ report
“The life of man is nasty, brutish, short,”
The dragon rises from his garden border
And promises to set up law and order.[iii]
In his early years of the Christian chapter of Auden’s life, the distrust of the State looms large:
If we are never alone or always too busy,
Perhaps we might even believe what we know is not true:
But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of the Perfect State or
No State at all,
To which we fly for refuge, is part of our punishment.
Let us therefore be contrite but without anxiety,
For Powers and Times are not
gods but mortal gifts from God.[iv]
Whoever rules, our duty to the City
is loyal opposition, never greening
for the big money, never neighing after
a public image.
Unless one was prepared to take a relativist view that all values are a matter of personal taste, one could hardly avoid asking the question: ‘If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?’[vi]
[i] Kirsch, 21-22, 187 n. 22.
[ii] Auden, “Vespers,” Collected Poems; Mendelson, The Early Auden, 20.
[iii] “Letter to Lord Byron,” in W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, 95.
[iv] Auden, “For the Time Being,” Collected Poems.
[v] Edward Mendelson, The Early Auden (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 19.
[vi] Kirsch, 22; see also Mendelson, Early Auden, 306.