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W.H. Auden's Praise of Pascal
Reading the writings and hearing the talk of the wiser ones, it sometimes happens that you notice certain books or authors positively cited over and over, and the quotes always strike and intrigue you—that’s been the case for myself with the poet W.H. Auden. I always liked the few poems of his I had read, likely in the Norton anthology, but repeated exposures to other poems of his, often in snippets, via various wise ones, such as Tolkien, our Titus, and of late especially Eva Brann in her wonderful commentary on Homer, led me yesterday to pounce on some Auden books in the used bookstore. One of them was this handsome collection, from 1940, republished in a special series of iconic poetry collections by Faber & Faber.
This is the volume that contains what is likely his most famous poem, “Musée des Beaux Artes,” but when I saw that another was titled “Pascal,” I went to that one first. There are quite a few other delights, but in light of C.J.’s recent piece below (which I confess, alongside its always-welcome Pascal appreciation, gave me a too-comfortable gratitude that I am a North American Anglican!), I thought I’d give a taste of the Pascal poem here.
Its first few stanzas describe a bleak time in Pascal’s (and his family’s) faith-journey (“…prayer bled to death in its abyssal spaces…”), and in a way that’s difficult to interpret, enough so that some readers might put the poem aside, but if you hang on, you get to these ones, which while beginning with praise of his Gift of writing, culminate in their report of Pascal’s famous spiritual experience, his “night of fire,” the one also described by Pope Francis. (Note that I edit one of these stanzas—wouldn’t be right to give y’all more than a third of the four-stanza poem.)
Yet like a lucky orphan he had been discovered
And Instantly adopted by a Gift;
And she became the sensible protector
Who found a passage through the caves of accusation,
And even in the canyon of distress was able
To use the echo of his own weakness as a proof
That joy was probable and took the place
Of the poor lust and hunger he had never known.
And never told him he was different from the others…
……………………………………and doubt by doubt
Restored the ruined chateau of his faith;
Until at last, one Autumn, all was ready
And in the night the unexpected came.
The empty was transformed into possession,
The cold burst into flames; creation was on fire
and his weak moment blazing like a bush,
A symptom of order and the praise;
And he had place like Abraham and Jacob,
And was incapable of evil like a star,
For isolation had been utterly consumed,
And everything that could exist was holy.
There’s another breath-taking stanza like this previous, but then this final one:
Then it was over. By morning he was cool,
His faculties for sin restored completely,
And eight years to himself. But round his neck
Now hung a louder cry than the familiar tune
Libido Excellendi whistled as he wrote
The lucid and the unfair. And still it rings
Wherever there are children doubts and deserts,
Or cities that exist for mercy and judgment.
So much in so many of those lines—one note I’ll make is the way he indicates that some of what Pascal wrote in his more spiritual mode is is not entirely “fair.”—presumably, he has the essential Pensées in mind, and not the polemics of the Provincial Letters. I did notice this criticism by Auden of Pascal’s famous “wager,” when doing a quick search for commentary on this poem.
And I’d be remiss not to mention that the very next poem in the collection is “Voltaire at Ferney,” which is a nearly-no-interpretation-required portrayal of Voltaire’s complacent arrogance, and yet also, of his remaining irritably disturbed by you-know-who:
And never doubted, like D’Alembert, he would win:
Only Pascal was a great enemy, the rest
Were rats already poisoned…
Night fell and made him think of women: Lust
Was one of his great teachers; Pascal was a fool…
…Yet like a sentinel, he could not sleep…