Caliban to the Audience: Auden's revision of Wordsworth's Sublime.
"STRIDING UP TO HIM IN FURY, YOU GLARE INTO HIS UNBLINKING EYES and stop dead, transfixed with horror at seeing reflected there, not what you had always expected to see, a conqueror smiling at a conqueror, both promising mountains and marvels, but a gibbering fist-clenched creature with which you are all too unfamiliar ... the only subject that you have ... the all too solid flesh you must acknowledge as your own." (1) In the middle of W. H. Auden's mid-career prose poem, "Caliban to the Audience," Caliban describes what happens when, looking for Ariel, the imagination, the audience finds Caliban instead, a disturbing reminder of the begged question of its existence: "solid flesh," as it were, mysteriously linked to the less-than-solid imagination. Like Ariel, Caliban is a ubiquitous presence who refuses to go away. As he reminds the audience at the very beginning of his address, even when it seeks the "so good, so great, so dead author to stand before the finally lowered curtain ... it is I ... who will always loom thus wretchedly into your confused picture ..." (CP 422). Auden's poem circles around this begged question of existence as Caliban takes his audience through an impossibly circular, tripartite structure that adroitly performs the same begged question. The address thus "proceeds" with recursively interwoven echo and apostrophe: in a dense style of hyperbole and convoluted sentence structure.
From the time it was published, the elaborate artifice of the address suggested--and continues to suggest--to most that the poem is about the ultimate artifice and collapse of poetry, especially the imagination required to produce it. As such, and as the last section of Auden's long poem, "The Sea and The Mirror, A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest," Caliban's address does what many argue of Shakespeare's Tempest: it exposes its art as mere artifice. This way of thinking lends itself well to support the view of those who see Auden becoming anti-Romantic at mid-career, turning his genius to undermining poetry and serving as a licensed jester.
This way of thinking, however, ignores Auden's genius in using artifice to expose and undermine the anti-Romantic (and anti-aesthetic) style of thinking characterizing Caliban's audience--and Auden's. It ignores Auden's central explanation of the piece, not in terms of what it attempts to represent but in terms of its unusual style performed by an "inarticulate creature," Caliban, who speaks by borrowing from Ariel the "most artificial style possible": that of the imagination. (2) Speaking the "real Word," Caliban gets at the ineffable truth of human existence, the existence of "born actors" (CP 444). As Edward Mendelson observes, Caliban, in fact, is an "artifice that embodies everything that is not an artifice." (3) Like the imagination for which he speaks, Caliban is an irritating, irrefutable, aesthetic entity impossible to deny or silence. In all of these respects, finally, Caliban plays a highly Romantic role performing, rather than attempting to represent, the sublime, a role this paper will investigate in three, interwoven venues as evidence of Auden's revision of the Romantic sublime.
To begin with, as Auden defines it in his study of Romanticism, The Enchafed Flood, the ultimate focus of the Romantic poet, who serves as the subject of his poetry, is his journey into himself. Here he finds an "unsolved problem," perpetually both "a stating and a solving of the problem." (4) He finds the begged question of identity inherent in being human, the indeterminate identity there within the poet's consciousness, privy to his thoughts and feelings. The discontinuity and dialectical tension that mark Caliban's observations in these ways, align him with what M. H. Abrams defines as the "silent human auditor" in the greater Romantic lyric. In the tripartite form, that moves from outer to inner and back to outer landscapes, this auditor appears in the inner landscape, the landscape of the poet's thoughts and feelings. (5) The auditor is somehow part of the poet's consciousness (hence, the way in which he speaks is not the usual way of speaking--out loud). The auditor disrupts and problematizes the poet's consciousness; as such a presence, it is what I will call a disrupting auditor. Second, foregrounded in Caliban, this auditor is what Thomas Weiskel notices as the "hidden sense of presence" germane--and problematic to--the Romantic sublime, itself also a tripartite form through which the poet explores the nebulous boundaries between what is human and what is "beyond human." (6) Appearing in the second movement of the sublime, this auditor is a presence that cannot be signified but keeps appearing anyway (Sublime 29).
Finally, concurrently with and central to its investigation of Auden's Caliban in these Romantic terms, this argument looks at Caliban specifically in comparison to Wordsworth's disrupting auditor, that mysterious, aesthetic presence in the fifth book of The Prelude, in the passage on which Auden bases his Enchafed Hood study of Romanticism. Caliban is like the mysterious auditor who engenders such fear in Wordsworth's "friend's" dream: the aesthetic presence to which the friend is nevertheless drawn. To see Caliban in this way will make clear that "Caliban to the Audience" demonstrates Auden's revision of Wordsworth's sublime. It is not a revision that demystifies the sublime. Performing what Auden realizes is non-representational and which cannot, by its nature, be represented, Auden confirms the sublime experience, making it impossible--for Caliban's or any audience--to explain it (away) in true or false terms. Offering a text made up exclusively of inner, aesthetic landscapes that comment about a text, Auden shifts the focus in the greater Romantic lyric from the disrupting auditor who appears to the poet (who then attempts to represent that auditor) to the disrupting auditor who appears to every reader (i.e., audience), performing that reader's thoughts and feelings after he or she has read a text.
My argument will arrive at a final idea that to read Auden as a modern poet who becomes anti-Romantic at mid-career is to misread him. Having presented the possibility that "Caliban to the Audience" is not a parody of the sublime intended to show its failure in poetry--that it shows, in fact, a parody of criticism trying to explain away the sublime--I will offer my own rather revisionary agreement with Edward Mendelson that the "surest way to misunderstand Auden is to read him as the modernists' heir." (7)
Auden writes "Caliban to the Audience" approximately twenty years before Abrams names and defines the greater Romantic lyric. Abrams calls it a tripartite form that moves from outer to inner and back to outer landscape, its inner landscape interrupted so markedly by what Abrams calls the "silent human auditor," usually invisible ("Structure" 77). Long before Abrams names the form, Auden is obviously aware of the outer and inner landscapes germane to Romantic poetry. He begins his career by studying the Romantics, finding the poetry they write to be one in which the poet serves as his own subject, exploring his own inner landscapes. (8) As such, this poetry engages the poet in the experience of journeying into an audience of selves within himself.
Like the Romantics, Auden finds within himself great indeterminacy and ambiguity, inexplicable and undeniable doubleness, if you will. What begins in his poetry as the stranger embodies this doubleness and evolves, by mid-career, into Caliban. The ambiguous presence of Caliban, in fact, is precisely the kind of ambiguity created by the disrupting auditor in the greater Romantic lyric. This auditor is a presence, either present or absent, Abrams observes, that appears in the inner landscape of the poet's thoughts and feelings and is usually silent--or, in Caliban's case, inarticulate, as Auden says. Abrams observes further that the special appeal of the form to Wordsworth is reflected in Wordsworth's device of "two consciousnesses": that is, in the initial, outer landscape, the poet, while viewing that landscape, revisits it. He remembers it from a prior time. This memory of the way it was, juxtaposed to the way it looks now, poses a problem--which propels the inner meditation or inner landscape--since the scenes do not match ("Structure" 77, 83).
Abrams's claim to be studying Wordsworth's and especially Coleridge's poetry is somewhat undermined by Abrams's pervasive attention to the genesis of Coleridge's criticism, Biographia Literaria. Arguing, however, as if poetry and criticism are separate, Abrams does not seem aware that these two consciousnesses can easily apply to criticism--and/or to Wordsworth's evolving awareness of himself as both poet and critic/reader. In terms of criticism, Abrams does not see reading as an activity in which the critic revisits a landscape of text and sometimes sees something differently from the way he or she remembers it from a prior time. In this respect, a problem is posed, which is, of course, what makes reading interesting. What Abrams does not consider, moreover, is the possibility that the two consciousnesses also apply and/or extend to the hidden auditor, which I will call the disrupting auditor; this is the case with Caliban, who appears in the inner landscape of thoughts and feelings. What Abrams calls the "dramatic mode of intimate talk" to this silent auditor at least suggests the possibility that this auditor reflects these two consciousnesses (as will become clear in looking at Wordsworth's Prelude passage), interrupting and propelling the revisiting process in the inner landscape ("Structure" 80). In other words, Abrams does not pursue the possibility that the disrupting auditor reflects and emphasizes the initial problem of the two consciousnesses not sharing the same view of that inner landscape.
This disrupting activity is seen clearly in the passage from Wordsworth's Prelude on which Auden bases his study of Romanticism. The passage in Wordsworth presents a brief description of an outer landscape; the reader is in a cave by the sea reading Don Quixote. Wordsworth moves from the outer landscape, which includes his mention of the reader being outwardly listless, to an inner landscape, which shows the reader contemplating an idea linked to his reading of Don Quixote: the impossible state of being "Exempt from all internal injury" (EF 3). These two consciousnesses do not match. The nature of that clash is then presented in the reader's dream of the disrupting auditor, first an Arab who holds both stone and shell, which, Auden recognizes, represent "alternate routes of salvation from the anxiety of the dreamer, a promise which is not realised" (EF 5; my emphasis). Further, the problem is magnified as soon as the dreamer wishes, in his fear, to "cleave unto this Man" (cleave meaning both to join to and to separate from); at this point the Arab becomes both Arab and Don Quixote. The dreamer awakes in terror, seeing, appropriately, the sea and his book: they both represent the inner, unresolvable tempest he feels. His existence is a begged question: his desire to be free from internal injury leads him to encounter that injury everywhere--in the personified creature that represents his internal injury, and in the sea and the book, when he awakes.
This begged question is powerfully dramatized in the disrupting auditor, Caliban, in Auden's poem. Caliban's address, in fact, begins by presenting Caliban as a disturbing "begged question." He is, as Auden puts it, the echo of the question the audience wants to speak to the author of the text about. He is an answer that is, by its nature, a perpetual question about the nature of being human. Caliban exudes this begged question in every way: he is the spokesman for the dead author, yet he echoes the audience. He is, further, linked with the "real Word" of the imagination the audience wants to deny (since it reminds the audience it is not perfect) (CP 444). The fact that Caliban appears in its consciousness greatly upsets it: he represents both the metaphysical and the less-than-perfect self it denies, yet how can it get upset over something it denies? The problem is further compounded by the fact that Caliban and Ariel are one, while the audience sees them as separate. The audience's anxiety is unrelieved; its appeals to escape, first to Caliban and then to Ariel, are futile. Finally, as Caliban insists, "No, we have not dreamt it. Here we really stand, down stage with red faces and no applause ... (CP 443). This aesthetic event, this commentary, is not merely aesthetic.
It is interesting in this regard that the passage in Wordsworth on which Auden bases his study shows Wordsworth, in fact, focusing primarily on the inner, aesthetic landscape. In Wordsworth's case, the inner landscape of the reader reflects what is in his mind after reading Don Quixote--while in Auden's case, the inner landscapes in Caliban's address reflect what is in the reader's mind after reading The Tempest. According to Auden, what interests a reader in any age is the hero who represents an unsolved problem. (9) From the Romantics on, the hero, in fact, is not a man of action but the artist. (10) Further, in Wordsworth's age, the character of the artist is revealed as double-natured, as in Wordsworth's dream, both Arab and Don Quixote and, as such, represents the problem of the Romantic poet. He is double-natured, both Arab (an explorer of possibility) and Don Quixote (however insane he is, he is somewhat of a religious mouthpiece, speaking truth). Similarly, in Auden's age, Caliban represents the double-natured status of the artist: both the "all too solid flesh," which Auden says represents not merely flesh but the "whole physical-historical nature of fallen man" and a mouthpiece for the imagination, the "real World" (CP 444). (11)
In both Wordsworth and Auden, moreover, this double-natured hero is centralized as the disrupting auditor: as some part of the reader's inner landscape that arises as a result of so much thinking about what the poet finds journeying into himself. The auditor disrupts and/or problematizes the poet's consciousness--and the reader's. In Wordsworth, the result of such disruption is expressed in the dreamer's ambiguous wish to "cleave" to the Arab. In Auden, the result of the disruption is performed in Caliban and expressed in the audience's contradictory desire to join to and then separate from Ariel, thinking, erroneously, that Ariel and Caliban are separate. It is greatly disturbed when Caliban appears in the mirror art holds up to its thoughts, Caliban being the "gibbering fist-clenched creature with which [it is] all too unfamiliar ... the only subject that [it has] ... the all too solid flesh [it] must acknowledge as [its] own (CP 433).
Finally, as Auden notices in Wordsworth, as represented in the stone and the shell, the "alternative routes of salvation from the anxiety of the dreamer" are "not realised"; the fact that nothing is resolved, moreover, makes the "hero" of the disrupting auditor interesting--to both reader and poet (EF 5, 90). Similarly in Caliban's address, Caliban presents the two routes of escape, each from a separate faction of his audience--and shows each to be futile. The address is thus unresolved.
This focus on the unresolved problem of the hero informs not only Auden's Enchafed Flood study but explains Auden's own example of the auditor in "Caliban to the Audience," which is, not coincidentally, a commentary not only on Shakespeare's The Tempest but on Auden's The Sea and The Mirror. (12) Auden's focus on commentary becomes clear in Enchafed Flood. He initially offers an eighty-four line passage from the fifth book of Wordsworth's 1805 Prelude, which, by the end of the study, he defines as an example of writing that shows the poet as "daring thinker," offering poetry that presents the "kind of knowledge" he gains by exploring his own thoughts and feelings. In effect, this is a poetry that offers heroes who are the "imaginative projections" of the poet, heroes, moreover, who are interesting to the reader and poet because they are "unsolved problems" (EF 147, 90). These loci show Auden's interest in inner landscapes and in the indeterminate, disrupting auditor who appears in them.
The passage from Wordsworth shows what Auden sees as the drama of the enchafed flood, the mental sea and/or tempest in the "friend," a reader, to whom Wordsworth attributes the experience. Both the friend and the disrupting auditor who appears in the "friend's" dream are imaginative projections of the tempest in Wordsworth, then, and, in a striking way, show Wordsworth's procedures as a poet involving his activities as a reader-critic. What he represents, finally, shows something germane to and yet indeterminate about the creative process so central to being human.
Drawing from his Romantic inheritance, Auden continues this focus on the unsolved problem of being human. Thus he begins "Caliban to the Audience" with a spokesman for the dead author and, disturbingly, the "very echo" of the audience's "bewildered cry." This is the only "outer" landscape offered; as Caliban makes clear, the play is over and all of the actors--the audience's "hired impersonators," as Caliban calls them--have been dismissed by the audience, who now wants to talk to the author and is dismayed that it instead gets Caliban. After this brief introduction, Caliban echoes the audience, speaks in his "officially natural role," and finally speaks on behalf of himself and Ariel (CP 430). These sections are all inner landscapes--or commentary--the kind of commentary or creation that goes on in a person's thoughts and feelings after an aesthetic event. Further, as Caliban makes clear, he and Ariel are one, which creates a disturbing doubleness--and represents an amazing evolution from Shakespeare's depictions of those characters as separate.
In one sense, the three sections of Caliban's address reflect, quite ironically, the tripartite structure of the greater Romantic lyric: the first section, his echo of the audience represents an outer landscape description of the audience's thoughts. That is, it describes the audience's usual pattern of thought aboard the "jolly crowded boat"; here audience members think they can exist as safe spectators of their native Muse, the intellect, as she plays with one idea after the next. Everything is a familiar landscape, revisited so often that anything different--such as Caliban--is seen as an intrusion, especially when, as the audience suspects, the author has somehow inveigled Caliban into Ariel's kingdom and Ariel into Caliban's.
Caliban speaks next in his "officially natural role," which offers an inner landscape behind that "outer" world of thought; here he reveals a behind-the-scenes description of the audience's role in creating its own tempest: it tries to dismiss Ariel, for not cooperating with what it wants him to do. Finally, Caliban returns to some kind of outer landscape, telling his audience what kind of landscapes it will find if it goes through with its attempted escape, appealing either to Caliban or to Ariel--not realizing that Caliban and Ariel are one.
In another sense, however, the three sections of Caliban's address are all inner landscapes, masterfully and inextricably intertwined in their dramatization of the unresolved problem of all time: that of a mind that will willingly entertain any thought except that of acknowledging the aesthetic experience of the "real Word." Finding that the transcendent, aesthetic experience cannot be locked out leads the audience to get upset by what it denies even exists. This begged question, finally, which is the question begged by the presence of Caliban, is the begged question of criticism, as Auden sees it.
Basing his study of Romanticism on the passage from Wordsworth's Prelude, Auden builds to the idea that some Romanticisms fail: the artist gets lost in himself while exploring himself and ends up, like Wordsworth, with his "capacity for experience" being "burned out quite early" (EF 149). Auden's study, however, also leads to his realization that some Romanticisms succeed: these artists realize that the artist is not Don Quixote. Successful Romantics realize that, by playing the part of Ishmael, "the explorer of possibility," they can find what Auden calls the actual self." thus, at the end of all of their exploration, the "Button-Moulder and the Boojum are waiting at the next cross-roads where they [the artists] will be asked to prove whether or no they have become their actual selves" (EF 149). The actual self is not a resolved and/or completed self; it is a self-in-process, based on the ongoing, unresolved problem of being human. This actual self in process is thus a Caliban self. As Caliban declares at the end of his address, humans are actually born actors who, in exploring lots of possible roles, find their raison d'etre in speaking for the "real Word." This does not resolve anything: "our incorrigible staginess, all wish and no resolve, are still, and more intensely than ever, all we have" (CP 444). Human nature is, in part, aesthetic in these respects. (13)
Both poet and critic share this nature. It is clear in these respects that Auden's interest in the passage from The Prelude reflects his interest in presenting these inner landscapes, these enchafed flood dreams that are not mere dreams and are germane to the reader's experience as well as to the poet's. Such aesthetic experiences cannot be proven to be true or false, in fact. They foreground unresolvable gaps; the gaps attest to, rather than undermine, their existence. As Auden's study of The Prelude reflects, Wordsworth develops the greater Romantic lyric towards portraying the inner drama and/or landscapes of the actual self that experiences these aesthetic events.
Auden's concept of this double-natured hero, moreover, conceptually aligns with the disrupting auditor also described by Weiskel--thirty years after "Caliban to the Audience."
Consider Auden's central, lifelong idea of poetry as a game of knowledge, a bringing to consciousness. This game offers aesthetic knowledge, which brings to consciousness the layer upon layer of knowledge germane to being human, which by its nature involves being a born actor. This view of poetry aligns with the bringing to consciousness involved in the greater Romantic lyric and, as will be seen now, the Romantic sublime. What is brought to consciousness in Caliban's address is the limitations of being human. It is not that Caliban suggests anyone revel in these limitations; what he argues is that "it is not in spite of them but with them that we are blessed by that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf" (CP 444). This is the essential gap Auden's poetry always brings to consciousness, the unsolved problem of being and becoming more and more human, going further and further into that burden of the mystery, that internal injury, that Wordsworth explores. The paradox is that a recognition of the limitations brings to consciousness a sense of the aesthetic realm that is transcendent, trans-verbal, unprovable as true or false. Whatever it is called, it is part of being human, a part of the human's strange, born actor status.
This is the indeterminate recognition central to what Thomas Weiskel calls the negative sublime. Finding in Wordsworth not only the negative sublime but also the positive or egotistical sublime, Weiskel explores both, also known as the two poles of Kant's sublime, the mathematical and the dynamic. He sees the negative sublime marked by indeterminacy, which remains an indeterminate other. This sublime, moreover, cannot exist without the "implicit, dialectical endorsement of human limitations." In fact, Weiskel asserts that the intensity of the negative sublime experience comes in proportion to a human's awareness that he or she cannot attain totality. The human cannot know--with certainty--that he or she is merely human; neither can the human know with certainty that he or she is anything beyond human. This indeterminate experience, moreover, ends as soon as that world beyond human "is consciously represented or given any positive content" (Sublime 44, 45, 43). By its nature, it is negative, dialectical, indeterminate. By its nature it cannot be represented--although as Auden realizes in Caliban, it can be performed.
More specifically, the negative sublime experience is tripartite; the three movements, in fact, conceptually align with the three movements of the greater Romantic lyric. The first phase is marked by normal perception: a signifier (or object) and signified (the mind contemplating the object) in determinate (i.e., habitual) balance. The second phase is the state of disruption as the habitual relation of mind and object breaks down; here there is an "immediate intuition of a disconcerting disproportion between inner and outer" (Sublime 23, 24). This disproportion aligns with Abrams's notice of Wordsworth's "two consciousnesses": that is, in the initial, outer landscape, the poet, while viewing that landscape, revisits it. He remembers it from a prior time. This memory of the way it was, juxtaposed to the way it looks now poses a problem--which propels the inner meditation--since the scenes do not match.
At this point, according to Weiskel, either object or mind is "suddenly in excess--and then both are, since their relation has become radically indeterminate." It is in this second phase, moreover, that the disrupting auditor appears; he is a presence that cannot be signified but keeps appearing anyway (Sublime 24, 29).
The third or reactive phase is marked by recovered balance between outer and inner worlds; here the mind sets up a fresh relationship between self and object, transforming the indeterminacy of stage two into a symbol of the mind's relationship to the transcendent order. "This new relation has a meta character, which distinguishes it from the homologous relationship of habitual perception." Here Weiskel finds a problem: this final imagery makes it difficult to "draw a clear line between the image as perception and as sign standing for the nonsensible or the unimaginable" (Sublime 24).
To a degree, these three phases of the negative sublime align with the three parts or phases of Caliban's address, Caliban speaking first as an echo of the audience, then in his "officially natural role" and finally on behalf of himself and Ariel. As interwoven as the sections are, nothing is resolved. The problem remains, and is actually clarified because the mind's habitual perception has been greatly disrupted--by Caliban. As will become clear in this regard, all three sections are inner landscapes, representing what happens as a reader revisits a familiar text: that reader is taken into the negative sublime experience. As will also become clear, the reader's experience is quite different from Caliban's, Caliban being the spokesperson for the poet, the "so good, so great, so dead author." The address dramatizes that difference throughout.
Caliban's echo of the audience is the first phase of the sublime: he echoes its sense of its "normal" way of life aboard the "jolly crowded boat": this is a strangely jolly world. Any idea--or "tout le monde," as Caliban puts it in his echo of the audience--can enter the thoughts, creating any comparison and/or contrast to any other idea. The native Muse (the intellect) in charge of this world can "skate full tilt toward the forbidden incoherence and then, in the last split second, on the shuddering edge of the bohemian standardless abyss, effect her breathtaking triumphant turn." To the audience who does not want to enter fully in but prefers to watch from a safe distance, merely playing with ideas in this Platonic world of mind, this world appears to be a "world of freedom without anxiety, sincerity without loss of vigour, feeling that loosens rather than ties the tongue" (CP 423, 426).
In "Caliban to the Audience," it is clear, however, that this normal way of (merely) playing with ideas has been upset. Caliban's echo of the audience indicates that he, in fact, is the disruption. The (dead) author of the text brought Caliban aboard the "jolly crowded boat," and he makes a pass, so to speak, at the virgin mind, virgin, as it turns out, not to tout le monde but to the aesthetic disruption of the "real Word." As a result, their spectator fun is over, and the audience suspects that Ariel now being gone has something to do with that. Caliban's echo of the audience, further, reflects what Weiskel calls the egotistical sublime, in which the goal is to subsume everything to the self. In the presence of noumenal reason, the ego is "aggrandized," leaving nothing indeterminate, ignoring anything that challenges that state (49, 50). Interestingly enough, Caliban's echo of the audience shows its failure to do so; its desire to maintain the status quo of life on the jolly crowded boat fails as it becomes obsessed with what upsets that status quo.
In the second section, Caliban speaks in his "officially natural role," telling the story of the disruption from his point of view: one which offers a behind-the-scenes or off-stage account of the audience's upset thinking. The ultimate voice of something that cannot be signified but keeps appearing anyway, Caliban, as is clear from the brief opening to the address, is the begged question or subject within every text, the echo of any reader's bewildered questions.
What begins in Auden's poetry as the stranger (as in the early poem, "The Watershed") is now foregrounded in Caliban: the ultimate state of aesthetic disruption as the habitual action of mind looking at itself breaks down. This disruption is something akin to the disruption that occurs when one looks in the mirror and sees something different--something out of the blue one is not looking for and does not wish to see. Here there is an "immediate intuition of a disconcerting disproportion between inner and outer" (how the individual thinks of himself and how he sees himself). At this point, either object or mind is "suddenly in excess--and then both are, since their relation has become radically indeterminate" (Sublime 23, 24). Thus, Caliban observes, the audience tries to dismiss Ariel, finding that he no longer cooperates in the way it wants him to. The audience tries to get him to leave by offering him a vacation and he refuses:
Striding up to Him in fury, you glare into His unblinking eyes and stop dead, transfixed with horror at seeing reflected there, not what you had always expected to see, a conqueror smiling at a conqueror, both promising mountains and marvels, but a gibbering fist-clenched creature with which you are all too unfamiliar, for this is the first time indeed that you have met the only subject that you have, who is not a dream amenable to magic but the all too solid flesh you must acknowledge as your own; at last you have come face to face with me ... (CP 433)
The relationship between audience and Caliban here is radically indeterminate. The audience cannot deny that it has seen Caliban--having seen him explains why it is so upset. To see the audience and Caliban and Ariel, in fact, all as facets of a reader's self makes this depiction reflect the power of a text to speak back, challenging the critic's familiar thought process. In a powerful way, thoughts about a text are thoughts about the (Caliban, unresolvable problem) self. They disrupt the deepest realm of belief within an individual. They are at the core of an aesthetic experience, demonstrating that aesthetic experience is not merely aesthetic. These thoughts perform the sublime nature within the human.
In the next section, Caliban declares that he speaks on behalf of himself and Ariel. According to Auden, of course, Caliban speaks--in any section--only by borrowing the language of Ariel. Studying the address as an example of the negative sublime, however, makes clear that Caliban's declaration in this last section aligns it with the third phase of the negative sublime. As Weiskel says, this stage reflects a meta character. That is, instead of focusing on mere habitual perception (as in phase one), or on that perception disrupted (as in phase two), this third phase reflects the resulting, new, meta vision. For Caliban's audience, this vision is reflected in the experience of standing no longer in front of the mirror (looking, in great dismay, at Caliban) but of standing on the "other side" of it--with Caliban and Ariel. Thus Caliban declares that "you have now all come together in the larger colder emptier room on this side of the mirror which does force your eyes to recognize and reckon with the two of us" (CP 435).
Standing on that other side builds to what Caliban declares, at the end of the address, an experience of realizing that
Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf of which our contrived fissures of mirror and proscenium arch--we understand them at last--are feebly figurative signs, so that all our meanings are reversed and it is precisely in its negative image of Judgement that we can positively envisage Mercy; it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.
In this awareness, it is possible to hear the "sounded note," if, by some "unforseen mishap," it "speaks" (CP 444).
No one can generate this aesthetic experience. In fact, every critic can certainly attest to that Mice in Wonderland, being-pulled-to-some-otherside-of-the-mirror experience: getting so caught up in a text that one is transported to some place on some other side of it. This experience, however, renders the self vulnerable to a recognition of the self in less-than-pleasing terms: as Caliban puts it, "our shame, our fear, our incorrigible staginess, all wish and no resolve." Nevertheless, it is "not in spite of them but with them that we are blessed" with the sight of that "Wholly Other Life" (CP 444).
This is Caliban's final message, anyway. What precedes that message in this third section is a detailed description of two ways in which the two factions of the audience will try to escape. Both of these ways reflect pseudo-meta visions that these two factions futilely think will resolve what cannot be resolved: the less-than-pleasing, double nature of their Caliban self.
One group appeals to Caliban to be released from their minor roles; they want to go back to some golden past, to be delivered from "any and every anxious possibility." Faithful creature that he (like any text) is, Caliban will "have no option" but to "instantly transport you, not indeed to any cathedral town or mill town or harbour or hillside or jungle or other specific Eden which your memory necessarily but falsely conceives of as the ultimately liberal condition ... but directly to that downright state itself." This is a place of chilling stillness and clarity, a place in which all "events are tautological repetitions and no decision will ever alter the secular stagnation." It is a place in which they are the only subject and despair is the only way out, a place in which all the "poor tired little historic questions fall wilting into a hush of utter failure" (CP 438, 439). It is a place of textual meaninglessness to the critic.
On the other hand, there are those who will appeal to Ariel to take them away from their major roles, those who are so weary of their "success" in attempting to "illuminate" the emptiness of life to the "misspelt" minds reading them. Those appealing to Ariel will ask him to deliver them from "this hell of inert and ailing matter" and into "the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case." But Ariel's role is, always, to make people aware of what they might be, and, in this case, he will have no choice other than to respond to their wish to "transcend any condition" by leading them "forthwith into a nightmare which has all the wealth of exciting action and all the emotional poverty of an adventure story for boys, a state of perpetual emergency and everlasting improvisation where all is need and change" (CP 439, 440).
Caliban goes into a lot more detail here than in the address to those wanting release from their "minor" roles. To this second, "finer" group, he declares that their appeal to Ariel to transcend any condition will lead to a place in which, in spite of the fact that everything is allegorical (a place in which "mathematical measurement and phenomenological analysis have no relevance"), there is no "sense of direction," no "knowledge of where on earth one has come from or where on earth one is going"--a directionless, boundary-less text. Everything here suggests that something is missing. "Everything, in short, suggests Mind but surrounded by an infinite extension of the adolescent difficulty"; it is a place in which the "panting frozen expressive gift has collapsed under the strain of its communicative anxiety," a place that will lead to "an ever giddier collective gallop ... toward ... the Black Stone on which the bones are cracked ... and your refusal to be yourself" becomes a "serious despair" (CP 440, 441).
This is the end result of criticism that delights in proving the failure of the literary text to prove the (unprovable) transcendence of any aesthetic experience within the human, let alone the text. This is a criticism that, increasingly, in feeling both that something is missing (i.e., the transcendence of an aesthetic experience) and that it is in constant danger of reifying a text, will attempt to gallop outside the boundaries of its discourse. It will attempt to escape what it sees as its aesthetic and claustrophobic confines only to arrive into a humorless, inescapable place of confronting the self, an ultimate confrontation with meaning--arising out of the exploration of meaninglessness. (14)
Both appeals--to Caliban and to Ariel--show Auden's awareness of the autotelic "truth"-making of criticism and provide one answer in this respect to Weiskel's sense of the problem in this third phase: the meta quality that shows the "mind's relation to a transcendent order" (in this case, the "real Word" for which Caliban is the spokesperson). Auden shows the critic's mind in relation to a transcendent order the critic's mind denies-and by which it is greatly disturbed. Caliban's response shows his awareness of his audience's futile attempts to escape that transcendence: either attempt to escape, by going back to some past reading or ahead to some future, "new" reading, will yield either a tautological repetition or no sense of direction. Thus "Caliban to the Audience" shows Weiskel's sense of the problem of showing the mind's relation to transcendence to be a problem created by the mind's refusal to acknowledge transcendence, to try to escape it.
In a central way, Auden's ability to show this problem in Caliban's address reflects his understanding of Wordsworth. That is, in Wordsworth's Prelude passage, the two "alternative routes of salvation from the anxiety of the dreamer," Auden argues, are represented in the stone and the shell. The stone represents the desert, a place that lacks any passion, and the shell represents the sea's disrupting power; each, moreover, contains within it the power of the other. Thus, in the desert, the abstractions (or, what Caliban calls in this faction of his audience, the tautological repetitions) lead to a mind disrupted (put at sea, as it were) by its own images, haunted by itself. And, related to the sea, the shipwrecked mariner seeks to escape into what Wordsworth calls an "independent world / Created out of pure intelligence" (EF 41). This is a state of no passion, leading to the Black Stone, in fact, for that faction of Caliban's audience that seeks to transcend its situation and escape itself. Thus, any attempt to impose the mind's need to control, ultimately to deny transcendence, is futile.
As someone who realizes that his "born actor" status, by its nature, hears this "real Word," Caliban does not have this problem. Unlike his audience, Caliban does not show any sign of futilely attempting to use his intellect to be in control. Borrowing the language of the imagination, Caliban finds gaps: unresolved problems that he realizes are signs of the transcendent within the human. To bring these gaps to a reader's consciousness, moreover, presents an unresolvable problem. The more the artist succeeds in representing his audience's "condition of estrangement from the [unprovable, aesthetic] truth," the more he is "doomed to fail":
for the more truthfully he paints the condition, the less clearly can he indicate the truth from which it is estranged, the brighter his revelation of the truth in its order, its justice, its joy, the fainter shows his picture of your actual condition in all its drabness and sham, and, worse still, the more sharply he defines the estrangement itself ... the more he must strengthen your delusion that an awareness of the gap is in itself a bridge, your interest in your imprisonment a release, so that, far from your being led by him to contrition and surrender, the regarding of your defects in his mirror, your dialogue, using his words, with yourself about yourself becomes the one activity which never ... lets you down, the one game which can be guaranteed. (CP 442)
The aesthetic sublime cannot be represented. (Indeed, as both object and subject of the human sublime--the ultimate begged question, Caliban cannot be represented.) It can, however, be performed.
The above passage offers a perfect description, in fact, of Wordsworth's failure--and noble attempts--to represent the sublime--and may have a lot to do with the two Wordsworths created by criticism, as will be discussed shortly. To recognize Wordsworth's attempts to represent the sublime leads one to appreciate Wordsworth's evolution into dramatizing the auditor, rather than attempting to represent him; the beginning stage of this evolution is seen in the fifth book of The Prelude and more fully in The Excursion.
Finally, long before Wordsworth is officially deconstructed, Auden presents an accurate portrayal of deconstructive critics, claiming to reveal and dismiss as futile that pitiful, Romantic state of infinite regress, of looking for ontological meaning in some phantom raison d'etre beneath it all, yet claiming to achieve the transcendence it denies to Romantic poets. This is Caliban's audience, refusing the "real Word," which, as Caliban reminds it, "is our only raison d'etre" (CP 444). It is an audience which has engaged in its own pitiful state of infinite regress, claiming that any text fails to achieve transcendence, yet feeling something is missing. Its delight, in fact, in shattering any "globes of enchantment," unintentionally describes its own, failed search for anything that can give it back those childhood globes of aesthetic enchantment (CP 435).
The sublime is performed by the Caliban in every reader's mind--in the echo of that reader's thoughts. The sublime disrupts the otherwise endless critical play with ideas. It interrupts that play with thoughts that beg endless questions about the unsolvable problem of being human. The sublime experience is not mere play, not merely an aesthetic experience.
Carried into modern and postmodern poetry, the disrupting auditor magnifies the central problem of criticism: how much of criticism sees, in that Arnoldean sense, what is really there, and how much does it reveal of what is there only in the critic's mind? (15) The fact that Auden writes "Caliban to the Audience" at mid-career shows his awareness of the way in which this auditor disrupts any reader's attempt to explain aesthetic experience away as something merely aesthetic--thus not real. Like it or not, Caliban, the born actor of human existence, is really there. Auden offers the piece as a confession, moreover, or even a forma informens of his intent, fortified at mid-career, to undermine criticism, not poetry. "Caliban to the Audience" does not show the collapse of the aesthetic world and/or of the poet's experience of the sublime. It shows the potential collapse of the critical world or any world trying to play with ideas it claims are there, in the poem, but that have nothing to do with the critic. With its impossibly interwoven, tripartite text that generates huge, unresolvable gaps between its sections, "Caliban to the Audience," shows that Caliban's audience ultimately fails at its attempt, while Caliban succeeds.
In short, while Mendelson declares that the best way to misunderstand Auden is to read him as a modernist heir, I say the best way to misunderstand Auden is to read him as a modern poet who becomes anti-Romantic at mid-career. At no point does Auden focus his energy in any way to assist the desublimation process so many insist to be a process that begins with the Romantics and is carried into modern poetry. Like Modernism, Romanticism is not ontologically coherent either in genesis or evolution; as Auden observes, in fact, there are both failed and successful Romanticisms. Some poets engage in the desublimation process of poetry, moreover, but not all, and what stands out in Wordsworth, in fact, is a poet who shows the war between poet and critic, the battle between the imagination leading the poet into the burden of the mystery and the intellect leading the reader into questioning that state.
In Auden's age, as in our own, the reader characteristically does not want to admit to the aesthetic power of art, led by the imagination, as an aesthetic experience germane to being human. The preference instead is for any art that undermines itself, showing itself to be mere fiction. That kind of reader, who prefers mere fictions, sees Auden at mid-career growing increasingly untrustworthy--insincere. Some take this as good--he is using his indomitable, clinical intellect to show the mere fictionality of human existence, or, he is bowing his talent to religion, undermining poetry to show his allegiance to God. On the other hand, some see this as bad: Auden's alleged untrustworthiness shows him failing to become the great social prophet it was thought he might become. Praised or damned, Auden is denied greatness, a status often believed impossible and, interestingly enough, always based on some Romantic idea of greatness: visionary greatness to somehow heal the (unhealable) internal injury of being human.
Even though he leaves moot the question of Auden's greatness, Auden's literary executor, Edward Mendelson argues steadily against the idea that Auden becomes less after mid-career. Seeing, in fact, that the tendency to read Auden as a modernist heir leads critics to expect "poems written in a subjective voice, in tones of imaginative superiority and regretful isolation" (from some golden past), Mendelson argues instead that Auden is engaged in the present, at home in the twentieth century. As such, Auden writes "in a voice almost unknown to English poetry since the end of the eighteenth century: the voice of a citizen who knows the obligations of his citizenship" (Selected Poems xi).
In a striking way, Mendelson's description of the misreading of Auden as a modernist heir reflects (however implicitly) Mendelson's awareness of the critical preference for failed Romanticism--for the poet maudit that Auden describes near the end of his Enchqfed Flood study. This poet is like Melville's Ahab, a "Romantic Avenger Hero ... in dread of not having a vocation" and yet unable to change from his defiant stance: "'My injury,' he says, 'is not an injury to me; it is me. If I cancel it out by succeeding in my vengeance, I shall not know who I am and will have to die. I cannot live without it." Thus, Auden concludes, this anti and/or failed Romantic Ahab spends his energy generating a counterfeit suffering; he must hold on to some memory of some "catastrophic injury" and resist any hope of happiness in the future (EF III).
Also striking is Mendelson's idea of Auden's engagement with the present and speaking as a citizen at home in the twentieth century and aware of the obligations of his citizenship. However unintentionally, this view does reflect the successful Romanticism Auden defines near the end of Enchafed Flood as that connection to what Auden calls the actual self. Auden sees writers such as Melville and Rimbaud as successful Romantics in that they connect, through all of their explorations of aesthetic possibilities of the self, to the civitas terrena, the city or unity of self that comes from accepting one's limitations and finitude. This is not a static place; these successful Romantics must face continually the temptation to lie in service of the "False City" i.e., the false self selling out, so to speak, to whatever ideas are popular with his age. "It is not madness we need to flee but prostitution," Auden concludes (EF 149, 66, 150).
Auden, finally, is a lot like Keats in relationship to Wordsworth, both of them revising the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime. For Keats, the goal is to avoid being "bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist," to avoid, in other words, that kind of Wordsworthian reader brooding and peacocking activity that leads to making "false coinage" and deceiving the self. (16) On the other hand, the good that Keats sees in Wordsworth is his ability as a poet to explore the burden of the mystery, to be, aesthetically, in that place in which one cannot divide light from darkness. Auden, too, sees this indeterminate place in Wordsworth's poetry. The passage from Wordsworth on which Auden bases his study of Romanticism shows Wordsworth led by his imagination to explore the burden of the mystery, as a result, facing a disrupting auditor that scares his intellect--and completely frustrates his need to be in intellectual control. This experience, in fact, exacerbates his sense of internal injury yet somehow represents a way of "healing" it: by accepting it as unresolvable.
Seeking to understand Wordsworth, Auden bases his idea of the poet as actor on Keats's idea, Keats being a poet who follows the implications of what Wordsworth finds exploring the burden of the mystery. Keats deems the poet able to explore this mystery to be a chameleon poet, one who has no identity, is everything and nothing ("Genius & Apostle," DH 436). On the other hand, and also like Keats in this regard, Auden is keenly aware of the role of the reader as different from that of the chameleon poet.
Thus, finishing his first long poem, Endymion, Keats acknowledges those who wait like "swarms of Porcupines with their Quills erect 'like lime-twigs set to catch my Winged Book'" (Complete Poems 508). According to Auden, "Authors can be stupid enough, God knows, but they are not always quite so stupid as a certain kind of critic seems to think. The kind of critic, I mean, to whom, when he condemns a work or a passage, the possibility never occurs that its author may have forseen exactly what he [the critic] is going to say" ("Reading," DH 8).
There is much in the second half of Auden's career that demonstrates this dynamic. Specifically, in terms of Auden's revision of Wordsworth's sublime, Auden does not seem intent on undermining poetry--ask yourself, would someone of such great talent be content with undermining that talent, much less cooperating with criticism or with God, for that matter, to undermine his vocation? Auden, moreover, is also not interested in undermining the sublime in order to assure us, as Weiskel says of the modern desublimation process, that we are not "imaginative adolescents" (Sublime 6). Instead, it seems Auden wants to show the error in such an adolescent point of view, a view that gets upset by the sublime while trying to insist it does not exist, as Caliban's audience does, and as Auden's critics do.
Auden wants nothing less than to make it possible for that reader to enjoy swinging out into what Caliban calls the "unabiding void" and have that wonderfully, successful Romantic experience of hearing the "sounded note." While an aesthetic experience, this is not merely aesthetic. It is a place in which the "spaces [of meaning] greet us with all their grand old prospect of wonder and width; the working charm is the full bloom of the unbothered state; the sounded note is the restored relation" (CP 444).
Something non-representational and intimately personal is performed for each reader--by an inarticulate, aesthetic creature within, borrowing the voice of that reader's imagination. This is a place in which both poetry and criticism can hear something about what it means to be human.
California State University, Fullerton
(1.) W. H. Auden, Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1991) 433. All further references to this work use the abbreviated title CP.
(2.) Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981) 328.
(3.) Edward Mendelson, Later Auden (New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1999) 230. Mendelson also observes that Auden sees Caliban as the "id," even an "allegorical figure of the Prick" (230-231).
(4.) Auden, The Enchafed Flood or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1950) 90. All further references to this work use the abbreviated title "EF."
(5.) M. H. Abrams, "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric," The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism (Bridgewater, New Jersey: Replica Books, 1984) 76-77. All further references to this work use the abbreviated title "Structure."
(6.) Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976) 29, 3. Given the fact that Abrams's essay on the greater Romantic lyric was published in 1965, it is interesting that Weiskel's 1976 study of the sublime does not link either the sublime's tripartite structure or the hidden auditor to either the tripartite structure or hidden auditor in Abrams's lyric. Weiskel mentions Abrams only twice, in passing, not making reference to Abrams's sense of the greater Romantic lyric. Weiskel's brilliant, initial point locates his study in an investigation of what the sublime reveals about the indeterminacy of being human and/or of going beyond the human. Neither, he says, has "sure boundaries." In this sense, he observes, a "humanistic sublime is an oxymoron" (3). All further references to this work use the abbreviated title Sublime.
(7.) Edward Mendelson, Selected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1979) xi.
(8.) A look at Auden's juvenalia shows his early imitations of the Romantics using this form. See Katherine Bucknell, W. H. Auden: Juvenilia: Poems, 1922-1928 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994). Looking at his Collected Poems, moreover, shows his continued use of the form, from the early poem, "1929," for example, to last poems such as "Thank You, Fog."
(9.) It is worth noting in this regard that Auden chooses Wordsworth's depiction of such in The Prelude, which shows an amazing evolution in Wordsworth's poetry from the silent auditor in, say, "Tintern Abbey," to this unsolvable problem of an auditor in The Prelude.
(10.) Auden, "Genius & Apostle," Dyer's Hand (New York: Vintage, 1989) 435. Further references to this work use the abbreviated title DH.
(11). "Balaam and His Ass," Dyer's Hand 131. The question remains: what informs this change in hero, from Arab/Don Quixote to Caliban, who represents both the "physical-historical nature of fallen man" and the spokesperson for the imagination and the "real Word." There is no single answer, but the issue of the double-natured artist is certainly one Auden discusses in a lot of different essays. I recommend reading The Enchafed Flood and the Dyer's Hand essay, "Genius & Apostle," both of which show Auden's responding implicitly to the importance of Wordsworth's depiction of the double-natured artist (both Arab and Don Quixote) and Auden's awareness of the way in which Wordsworth fails, in trying to represent such a hero so directly. In "Genius & Apostle," moreover, Auden recognizes Keats's genius in The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream in showing the poet as actor, rather than dreamer and/or madman (Arab and/or Don Quixote). In other words, Auden uses Keats to support his (Auden's) argument that the dreamer and the madman (which can easily be aligned with Wordsworth's Arab/Don Quixote), in earnest, cannot represent the poet; since neither is capable of play-acting. Again agreeing with Keats, Auden recognizes acting as central to the poet's use of the imagination: that faculty that Auden equates with acting and finds in Keats's definition of the identity-less poet (DH 436). Finally, in his 1940 argument, "Mimesis and Allegory," Auden declares the dilemma of the modern artist regarding how he should express his beliefs in his art, an argument that strongly suggests why the double-nature of Caliban becomes a more suitable hero for Auden's age than the Arab/Don Quixote hero ("Mimesis and Allegory," Literary Criticism: Idea and Act: The English Institute, 1929-1972. Selected Essays, ed. W. K. Wimsatt [Berkeley: U of California P, 1974]: 32-43).
(12.) Auden's Enchafed Flood study of Romanticism, moreover, is a culmination of his mid-career thinking about Romanticism. From 1939 on, works such as The Prolific and The Devourer, "The Public v. the late Mr. William Butler Yeats," "Mimesis and Allegory," and his Didymus columns in The Commonweal show the evolution of his thinking on his Romantic inheritance--and his awareness of the way in which his thinking goes against his age's anti-Romantic thinking on that issue.
(13.) The idea of the unprovable truth of aesthetic possibilities--and the idea of the actual self--is not a new idea to Auden at the end of the 40s. In his 1939 Prolific and Devourer, he explores the idea of the "True Way" as something that is a way of happening or becoming conscious; this way of happening "cannot be codified as a philosophy" since it is not possible to have a "perfect knowledge of the whole of reality" (30). Becoming conscious of this way of happening opens the individual to that realm of knowledge of the absolute, which, as Auden declares the following year in "Mimesis and Allegory" is not provable in true or false terms (34). In addition, as Auden makes clear in his Dyer's Hand essays, after his mid-career decade exploring the self for the kind of knowledge that it brings is, for the modern poet, all he can be true to: "his subjective sensations and feelings"; "there is no longer a nature 'out there' to be truly or falsely imitated" ("The Poet & The City," DH 78).
(14.) This is the place of new Romanticism, a criticism described by Stephen Copley and John Whale in Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts, 1780-1832, Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1992) 1-10. It is a place of freedom from the old phase of Romantic criticism. Finding the old phase claustrophobic in its "struggle simultaneously to define and to be rid of itself," Copley and Whale, nevertheless, still worry about the ever-present danger of reification, in spite of their belief that they can transcend the aesthetic boundaries of the old phase, turning their inquiries "across discourses ... breaking down categories in an attempt to harness deconstructive procedures to a sense of history" (4, 8).
(15.) Abrams asks this question near the end of his "Two Roads to Wordsworth" essay and grants the possibility that criticism does describe what is really there. He also sees critics finding Wordsworth to stand out both as a "complex but integral poet" and as "a radically divided one whose deepest inclinations, known to the modern critic but not to the poet himself, undercut or annul his repeated affirmations" (The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism [Bridgewater, New Jersey: Replica Books, 1984] 155). It is interesting in this regard that so much has been made of Auden's "double" nature or double man status. Auden, however, is aware of critics reading him, as I argue, especially in the conclusion of this paper. For either Wordsworth or Auden, finally, the role of the auditor in their poetry seems to bring out a lot of what is there in the critic and his or her relationship to and/or awareness of the Caliban self. This something problematizes any attempts to define the human as merely mortal.
(16.) John Keats, The Complete Poems, 3rd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1988) 540.
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|Title Annotation:||W.H. Auden, William Wordsworth|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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