Thursday, May 17, 2012

Auden on liturgy.

This is not the post that I planned for today's Feast of the Ascension, but I couldn't help but share this letter by the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, which I read for the first time this afternoon thanks to a friend who posted it on Facebook. Born into a staunchly Anglo-Catholic family, Auden drifted into youthful agnosticism before firmly recommitting himself to Christianity in his mid-thirties. Though Auden remained a faithful member of the Episcopal Church for the final three decades of his life, this letter to the priest-in-charge of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery makes it clear that the poet was less than thrilled with moves to replace the Cranmerian cadences of the Book of Common Prayer with a more 'modern' liturgy:
77 St Mark's Place

New York City 3

Nov. 26th [year not given]

Dear Father Allen:

Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new 'liturgy' is appalling.

Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what 'the quick and the dead' means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with 'the undemocratic' is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.

And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.

With best wishes


W.H. Auden
I have admired Auden's gift for language for a long time - his "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" happens to be my favorite poem - but I didn't know that the poet was such a brilliant polemicist until I read this letter. Marvelous invective aside - "I implore you by the bowels of Christ" - Auden really does make some excellent and still salient points. The strange tendency to "identify the ceremonious with 'the undemocratic'" sadly remains in some quarters, as does the bias in favor of linguistic simplification which Auden so archly rebuts by reminding us that "any child of six can be told what 'the quick and the dead' means" (as I've noted before, the same goes for words like 'consubstantial'). On this, one of the Church's great feast days, it is also good to be reminded that "one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead." AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home