Autograph Letter Signed W. H. Auden to Stella Musulin with Typescript W. H. Auden "Freedom and Necessity in the Arts" 1970-05-21
Auden, W. H.
  • Mayer, Sandra
  • Frühwirth, Timo
Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Vienna 2021
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Cite this Source (MLA 9th Edition)
Andorfer Peter, Elsner Daniel, Frühwirth Timo, Grigoriou Dimitra, Mayer Sandra, Mendelson Edward and Neundlinger Helmut. Auden Musulin Papers: A Digital Edition of W. H. Auden's Letters to Stella Musulin. Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2022, .
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0002 May 21st.

0003 Dear Stella·
0004 You're an angel. I have to deliver this
0005 in Neulengbach on Sunday, June 14th.
0006 In case your dictionary doesn't give it, the
0007 German for the technical word buddle (page I, near
0008 bottom) is Erzwaschtrog .
0009 I hope there is an equivalent German euphemism
0010 for "te Senior Citizen.",
0011 If there is a special honary title of adress
0012 for a Landeshauptman,please supply.
0013 love
0014 Wystan
0015 P_S. Adit= Stollen.
0016 Concentrating Mill is,I tGuess, though I may
0017 be wrong , Vereinigungmühle .

0018 (1

0019                  Sehr veehrter Herr Landeshauptmann, meine Damen und Herren:
0020           I hope you will pardon me if I speak somewhat personally. I do so,
0021 not out of vanity,but because  I do not wish to give the impression that I
0022 am attempting to lay down absolute laws which are valid for all. I give you my
0023 experiences as a poet,in the hope that you will be able to compare them with
0024 yours,and form your own judgment about them.
0025    Most of what I know about the writing of poetry,or at least about the kind I
0026 am interested in writing,I discovered long before I took any interest in poetry
0027 itself.
0028   Between the ages of six and twelve,I spent a great many of my waking hours in
0029 the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world,the basic elements of which
0030 were a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the
0031 North of England
and b) an industry - lead-mining.
0032    It is no doubt psychologically significant that my sacred world was autistic -
0033 that is to say,I had no wish to share it with others nor could I have done so.
0034 However,though constructed for and inhabited by myself alone,I needed the help of
0035 others,my parents1/2 in particular,in collecting its basic materials; others had to
0036 procure for me the necessary text-books on geology and machinery,maps,catalogues,
0037 guide-books and photographs,and,when occasion offered take me down real mines,
0038 tasks which they performed with unfailing patience and generosity.
0039     From this activity,I learned certain principles which I was later to find applied
0040 to all artistic fabrication. First,whatever other elements it may include,the
0041 initial impulse to create a secondary world is a feeling of awe aroused by
0042 encounters,in the Primary World,with sacred beings or events.  This feeling of awe
0043 is an imperative,that is to´ say,one is not free to choose the object or the event
0044 that arouses it. Though every work of art is a secondary world,it cannot be
0045 constructed ex nihilo,but is a selection from and a recombination of the contents of
0046 the Primary World. Even the 'purest' poem,in the French Symboliste sense,is
0047 made of words which are not the poet's private property,but the communal creation
0048 of the linguistic group to whom he belongs,so that their meaning can be looked up
0049 in a dictionary.
0050      Secondly,in constructing my private world,I discovered that,though this was
0051 a game,or rather precisely because it was a game - that is to say,not a necessity
0052 like eating or sleeping,but something I was free to do or not as I chose - it
0053 could not be played without rules. Absolute freedom is meaningless: freedom can
0054 only be realised in a choice between alternatives. A secondary world,be it a poem,
0055 or a game of football or bridge,must be as much a world of law as the Primary,the
0056 only difference being that in the world of games one is free to decide what its
0057 laws shall be. But to all games as to real life,Goethe's lines apply.

(vl) 0001              In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
(vl) 0002              Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

0058    As regards my particular lead-mining world,I decided,or rather,without conscious
0059 decision I instinctively felt,that I must impose two restrictions upon my freedom
0060 of fantasy. In choosing what objects were to be included,I was free to select this
0061 and reject that,on condition that both were real objects in the Primary World,to
0062 choose,for example,between two kinds of water-turbine,which could be found in a
0063 text-book  on mining machinery or a manufacturer's catalogue: but I was not free
0064 to invent one.  In deciding how my world was to function,I could choose between
0065  two practical possibilities  - a mine can be drained either by an adit or a pump -
0066  but physical impossibilities and magic means were forbidden. When I say forbidden,
0067  I mean that I felt,in some obscure way,that they were morally forbidden. Then there
0068  came a day when the moral issue became quite conscious. As I was planning my
0069  Platonic Idea of a concentrating-mill,I ran into difficulties. I had to choose
0070  between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes,called a buddle.
0071  One type I found more sacred or ' beautiful',but the other type was,I
0072  knew from my reading,the more efficient. At this point I realised that it was my
0073  moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

0074 (2

0075     When,later,I began to write poetry’I found that,for me,at least,the same
0076 obligation was binding. That is to say,I cannot accept the doctrine that,in
0077 poetry,there is a 'suspension of belief'. A poet must never make a statement
0078 simply because it sounds poetically exciting: he must also believe it to be
0079 true. This does not mean,of course,that one can only appreciate a poet whose
0080 beliefs happen to co-incide with one's own. It does mean,however,that one must
0081 be convinced that the poet really believes what he says,however odd the
0082 belief may seem to oneself.
0083        Between constructing a private yfantasy world for oneself alone
0084 and writing poetry,there is,of course,a profound difference. A
0085 fantasy world exists only in the head of its creator: a poem is a public
0086 verbal object intended to be read and enjoyed by others. To become conscious
0087 of others is to become conscious of historical time in various ways. The
0088 contents of a poem are necessarily past experiences,and the goal of
0089 a poem is necessarily in the future,since it cannot be read until
0090 it has been written. Again,to write a poem is to engage in an activity which
0091 human beings have practised for centuries. If one asks why human beings
0092 make poems or paint pictures or compose music,I can see two possible answers.
0093 Firstly all the artistic media are forms of an activity peculiar to human
0094 beings,namely,Personal Speech. Many animals have impersonal codes of
0095 communications,visual,olfactory,auditory signals,by which they convey to
0096 other members of their species vital information about food,territory,sex,
0097 the presence of enemies etc,and in social animals like the bee,such
0098 a code may be exceedingly complex. We,too,of course,often use words in the same
0099 way,as when I ask a stranger the way to the railroad station. But when we
0100 truly speak,we do something quite different. We speak as person to person
0101 in order to disclose ourselves to others and share our experiences with
0102 them,not because we must,but becuase we enjoy doing so. This activity is
0103 sometimes quite erroneously called 'self-expression'. If I write a poem
0104 about experiences I have had,I do so because I think it
0105 should be of interest and value to others: the fact that it has till now
0106 only been my experience is accidental. What the poet or any artist has to convey
0107 is a perception of a reality common to all,but seen from a unique perpsective,
0108 which it is his duty as well as his pleasure to share with others. To small
0109 truths as well as great,St Augustine's words apply.

0110             The truth is neither mine nor his nor another's;but belongs
0111             to us all whom Thou callest to partake of it: warning us
0112             terribly,not to account it private to ourselves,lest we be
0113             deprived of it.

0114   Then the second impulse to artistic fabrication is the desire to transcend
0115 our mortality,by making objects which,unlike ourselves,are not subject to
0116 natural death,but can remain permanently 'on hand' in the world,
0117 long after we and our society have perished.
0118    Every genuine work of art,I believe,exhibits two qualities,Nowness and
0119 Permanence. By Nowness I mean the quality which enables an art-historian
0120 to date a work,at least,approximately. If,for example,one listens to
0121 a composition by Palestrina and one by Mozart,one knows immediately that,
0122 quite aside from their artistic merits,Palestrina must have lived earlier
0123 than Mozart: he could not possibly have written as he did after Mozart.
0124 By Permanence,I mean  that the work continues to have relevance and
0125 importance lomg after its creator is dead. In the history of Art,unlike
0126 the history of Science,no genuine work of art is made obsolete by a
0127 later work. Past science is of interest only to the historian of science,not
0128 to what scientists are doing at this moment. Past works of art,on the
0129 other hand,are of the utmost importance to the contemporary
0130 practictneroner. Every artist tries to produce something new,but in the hope
0131 that,in time,it will take its proper place in the tradition of his art.
0132 And he cannot produce anything significantly original unless he knows
0133 well what has already been done;w,that is to say , he cannot
0134 'rebel' against the past without having a profound reverence for it.

0135 (3

0136       There are periods in history when the arts develop uninterruptedly,
0137  each generation building on the achievements of the previous generation.
0138 There are other periods when radical breaks seem to be necessary. However,
0139 when they are,one will generally find that the 'radical' artist does not
0140 disown the past,but finds in works of a much earlier period or in
0141 those of culture than his own,the clue as to what he should do now.
0142 In my own case,for example,I know how much I owe to Anglo-Saxon and
0143 Medieval Poetry.
0144     When I review the contemporary artistic scene,it strikes me how
0145 extraordinarily fortunate men like Stravinsky,Picasso,Eliot,
0146 etc,that is,those persons we think of as the founders of 'modern' art,
0147 were in being born when they were,so that they came to manhood before
0148 I9I4. Until the First World War,western society was still pretty much
0149 what it had been in the nineteenth century. This meant that for these artists,
0150 the felt need to create something new arose from an artistic imperative,
0151 not a historic imperative. No one asked himself:"What is the proper
0152 kind of music to compose or picture to paint or poem to write in the year
0153 I9I2.?"  Secondly,their contemporary audiences  were mostly
0154 conservative,but honestly so.  Those,for instance,who were scandalised by
0155 Le Sacre du Printemps,may seem to us now to have been old fogies,but
0156 their reaction was genuine. They did not say to themselves:"Times have
0157 changed and we must change with them in order not to
0158 be left behind."
0159      Here are a few statements by Stravinsky to which the young,whether
0160 artists or critics would do well to listen and ponder over.

0161            In my youth the new music grew out of,and in reaction to,traditions,
0162            whereas it appears to be evolving to-day as much from social needs
0163            as interior artistic ones...The status of new music as a
0164            category is another incomparable. It had none at all in my early
0165             years,being in fact categorically opposed,and often with real
0166           hostility. But the unsuccess of composers of my generation at
0167           least kept them from trading on success,and our unsuccess may have
0168            been less insidious than the automatic superlatives which nowadays
0169           kill the new by absorbing it to death.
0170                                  ***

0171           The use of the new hardware naturally appears to the new musician
0172           as "historically imperative"; but music is made out of musical
0173           imperatives,and the awareness of historical processes is probably
0174           best left to future and different kinds of wage-earners.
0175                                   ***

0176  In times,like our own,of rapid social change and political crisis,there is
0177 always a danger of confusing the principles governing political action and
0178 those governing artistic fabrication.  The most important of such confusions
0179 are three.
0180   Firstly,one may come to think of artistic fabrication as a form of political
0181 action. Every citizen,poets included,has a duty to be politically 'engagé',
0182 that is,to play a responsible part in seeing that the society of which
0183 he is a member shall function properly and improve. But the poet,qua poet,
0184 has only one political function. Since language is his medium,it is his duty,
0185 by his own example,to defend his mothermother-tongue against corruption by demagogues,
0186 journalists,the mass-media etc. As Karl Kraus said:"Die Sprache ist die
0187  Mutter,nicht das Magd,des Gedankens",and when language loses its meaning,
0188 its place is taken by violence. Of course,the poet may use political and
0189 social events as subject-matter for poems - they are as much a part of human
0190 experience as love or nature - but he must never imagine that his poems have
0191 the power to affect the course of history. The political and social history
0192 of Europe would be what it has been if Dante,Shakepeare,Goethe,Michael
0193 Angelo
,Titian,Mozart,Beethoven,etc, had never existed.

0194 4

0195    Where political and social evils are concerned,only
0196 two things are effective: political action and straightforward,truthful,
0197 detailed journalistic rapportage of the facts. The Arts are powerless.
0198   The second confusion,of which Plato is the most famous example,is to take
0199 artistic fabrication as the model for a good society.
0200 Such a model,if put into practice,is bound to produce a tyrrany. The aim of
0201 the artist is to produce an object which is complete and will endure without
0202 change. In the 'city' of a poem,there are always the same inhabitants doing
0203 exactly the same jobs for ever. A society which was really like a good poem,
0204 embodying the aesthetic virtues of order,economy and subordination of the detail
0205 to the whole,would be a nightmare of horror for,given the historical reality of
0206 actual men,such a society could only come into being through selective breeding,
0207 extermination  of the physically and mentally unfit,absolute obedience to
0208 its director,a alrge slave class kept out of sight in cellars and the
0209 strictest censureship of the Arts,forbidding anything to be said which is
0210 out of keeping with the official 'line.'
0211    The third confusion,typical of our western 'free'
0212 societies at this time,is the opposite of Plato's,namely to take political
0213 action as the model for artistic fabrication. Political action is a necessity,
0214 that is to say,at very moment something has to be done,and it
0215 is momentary - action at this moment is immeiately followed by another action
0216 at the next.  Artistic fabrication,on the other hand,is voluntary-
0217 the alternative to one work of art can be no work of art - and the artistic
0218 object is permanent,that is to say,immune to historical change. The attempt
0219 to model artistic fabrication on political action can therefore,only
0220 reduce it to momentary and arbitrary 'happenings',a conformism with
0221 the tyrrany of the immediate moment which is far more enslaving and
0222 destructive of integrity than any conformism with past tradition.

0223 insert
0224 4`a

0225    What then,can the Arts do for us? In my opinion,they can do two things.
0226 They can,as Dr Johnson said,'enable us a little better to enjoy life or a
0227 little better to endure it". And, because they are objects
0228 permanently on hand in the world,they are the chief means by which the
0229 living are able to break bread with the dead,and,without a communication
0230 with the dead,I do not believe that a fully human civilised life is possible.
0231   Perhaps,too,in our age,the mere making of a work of art is itself a
0232 political act. So long as artists exist,making what they please or think
0233 they ought to make,even if their works are not terribly good,they
0234 remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of,namely,
0235 that the managed are people with faces,not anonymous numbers,that Homo
0236 Laborans is also Homo Ludens.
0237          And now,I hope those of you who know no English will forgive me if
0238 I conclude these remarks with a light poem of my own,entitled
0239 Doggerel by a Senior Citizen.

0240 (4a

0241 insert into next page

0242        At this point,a little digression on the subject of 'free' verse,which
0243   seems now to be almost universal among young poets. Though excellent
0244  examples,the poems of D.H.Lawrence,for example,exist,ithey are,in my opinion
0245 the exception,not the rule. The great virtue of formal metrical rules is
0246 that they forbid automatic responses and,by forcing the poet
0247 to have second thoughts,free him from the fetters of self. All too often,the
0248 result of not having a fixed form to be true to,is a self-indulgence which in
0249 the detached reader can only cause boredom. Further,in my experience ,contrary
0250 to what one might expect,the free-verse poets sound much more
0251 like each other than those who write in fixed forms. Whatever freedom may do,
0252 it does not,it would seem,make for originality.