Autograph Letter Signed W. H. Auden to Stella Musulin with Typescript W. H. Auden "Freedom and Necessity in the Arts" 1970-05-21

AuthorAuden, W. H.
  • Mayer, Sandra
  • Frühwirth, Timo
  • Grigoriou, Dimitra
PublisherAustrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Vienna 2021
Source Information
  • State Collections of Lower Austria
  • Stella Musulin (Depot)
  • St. Pölten
  • 1970-05-21
  • TEI Logo
  • RDF metadata
IIIF Endpoint(s)
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, .


May 21st.

Dear Stella·

You're an angel. I have to deliver this
in Neulengbach on Sunday, June 14th.

In case your dictionary doesn't give it, the
German for the technical word buddle (page I, near
bottom) is Erzwaschtrog .

I hope there is an equivalent German euphemism
for "te Senior Citizen.",

If there is a special honary title of adress
for a Landeshauptman,please supply.



P_S. Adit= Stollen.
Concentrating Mill is,I tGuess, though I may
be wrong , Vereinigungmühle .


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

              In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
              Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


insert into next page

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

You're an angel

According to her memoir "The Years in Austria" (26), Stella Musulin translated W. H. Auden's speech "Freedom and Necessity in the Arts". This translated speech he delivered at Lyrik 70 and was published, without a title or indication of the translator, in the first issue of the literary journal Podium.

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