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Auden on Macao.

In 1937 W. H. Auden (1907-1973) and Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) were commissioned by Faber and Faber in London and Random House in New York to write a book about the Far East. "The choice of itinerary was left to our own discretion," the young writers recalled (Journey to a War, 1939, p. 13). "The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in August decided us to go to China" (p. 22). They left England in January 1938 for a stay of six months, returning in late July. Journey to a War combines entries from Isherwood's diary with Auden's sonnets from a sequence titled "In Time of War"" One of those sonnets is devoted to "Macao" (p. 22):
 A weed from Catholic Europe, it took root
 Between the yellow mountains and the sea,
 And bore these gay stone houses like a fruit,
 And grew on China imperceptibly.

 Rococo images of Saint and Saviour
 Promise her gamblers fortunes when they die;
 Churches beside the brothels testify

 That faith can pardon natural behaviour.

 This city of indulgence need not fear
 The major sins by which the heart is killed,
 And governments and men are torn to pieces:

 Religious clocks will strike; the childish vices
 Will safeguard the low virtues of the child;
 And nothing serious can happen here.

The poem was reprinted, unchanged, in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945, pp. 18-19). In later collections, however, "Macao" had undergone revision. In the Collected Shorter Poems (1966, p. 121) and Collected Poems (1976, p. 145), it reads:
 A weed from catholic Europe, it took root
 Between some yellow mountains and a sea,
 Its gay stone houses an exotic fruit,
 A Portugal-cum-China oddity.

 Rococo images of Saint and Saviour
 Promise its gamblers fortunes when they die,
 Churches alongside brothels testify
 That faith can pardon natural behavior.

 A town of such indulgence need not fear
 Those mortal sins by which the strong are killed
 And limbs and governments are torn to pieces:

 Religious clocks will strike, the childish vices
 Will safeguard the low virtues of the child,
 And nothing serious can happen here.

Auden's moral picture of Macao, now presented unobtrusively against a background of major wars, is one of greater destruction. The "men" who are torn to pieces become metonymically (and more graphically) "limbs"" and death--the sins that were major--have become "mortal." Other alterations affect tone, making it more colloquial. Moreover, his early modernist tendency to universalize gives way to greater particularity, to specifying and naming things. Macao ceases to be a "city" and becomes--rather off-handedly--a "town." While the original fourth line--"And grew on China imperceptibly"--turns into an accusation. The poet now makes Portugal directly responsible for introducing the European Catholicism that has given Macao its peculiar moral character.

Macao is now "a Portugal-cum-China oddity." Why make this quasi-observation into an accusation? In the context of Auden's personal moral landscape, Macao in 1938 embodies cultural oppositions and moral contradictions. Churches and brothels stand side by side, and (transvalued) vice has become, as in William Blake, the protector of virtue. The "town" is a place of sin and indulgence (recalling, perhaps, the sale of indulgences in an earlier time) for which there appears to be no punishment. Portugal has coupled with China to give birth to Macao. Given this context, it is appropriate that the Latin term cum, which gives Auden's phrase an ecclesiastical tinge, evokes as well its near-homonym in English, carrying with its connotative hint of the philoprogenerative.

George Monteiro, Brown University
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Title Annotation:W. H. Auden
Author:Monteiro, George
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
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