W.H. Auden gives us a personal insight into his own religious beliefs the impact of Christianity in his poem, “In Praise of Limestone.” The poem is a successful blending of geological imagery depicting the varying nature of man. There are two extreme natures represented by two distinct landscapes. There is the socialized protection of the limestone landscape where the “best and worst” inhabitants escape to. This is juxtaposed with the granite waste lands. Auden’s point of view in the poem is clear – he concedes in the end that the limestone landscape best represents
Or the life to come.1
Auden begins his poem by coalescing humanity under the description of “the inconstant ones.”2 This first line stresses human fallibility, suggesting the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. The terrain of the limestone landscape is a place that all people have known. It is the place that we, as humans,
Are constantly homesick for.3
Being cast from a utopian existence, such as Eden or childhood, one constantly longs for that which is lost.
There are three parallel themes in this poem. These three themes embody a loss of innocence or a constant maturing. The themes are the expulsion paradise or an Eden-like existence, the loss of innocence through maturity, and the naivete of Christian religious concepts. All three of these themes are experienced by all people in some manner. The limestone landscape is that which was lost and is now longed for – paradise, childhood, or faith in Christianity. The poem focuses mainly on the later theme, but the other two themes are inherent in this main theme.
The limestone landscape is described in utopian terms:
…Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard;4
The limestone landscape is longed for by humans and represent paradise lost. This limestone Eden is described in another work by Auden:
Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.5
These images correspond closely with the images of “In Praise of Limestone:” “granite wastes,” “oceanic whisper,” and “blazing crater.”
The Eden-like limestone landscape is a
Of short distances and definite places6
These images are completely palpable and offer a calming security. It is a totally enclosed world – no one can see past its limits.
After the descriptions of paradise, Auden begins the second theme. The loss of innocence parallels the expulsion from Eden and echoes the relationship between mother and son. The poem begins to expand in its metaphorical themes. The landscape is like a mother – it is a protective landscape. Geoffrey Millard believes the limestone landscape represents the womb and that the granite wastes represent a created, lost womb.7 Although this is true, its seems a simple way of describing the Mother / son relationship. The formal term, “Mother” does not stand for a mother, but the essence of motherhood. It has a deeper meaning, especially in the latter part of the poem. The limestone landscape, the Mother, and son begin to form the structure of the third theme – complete faith in Christianity:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm?8
The meaning is clear. The limestone landscape represents Christian thought and faith. The Mother / son relationship is also a God / man relationship. The verses here are brimming with Christian doctrine. The rock upon which the son lounges echoes Peter, the rock upon which the Christian Church was built. The verse reveals the boy’s dependence on Christianity.
That for all his faults his is loved.9
directly represents the Christian concept of “forgiveness of sins.” No matter what a person does they are forgiven by God and still loved. As Mother loves and loves her son, the limestone landscape (through Christian doctrine) loves and protects its inhabitants. The rest of this section is filled with Biblical images: “hill-top temple,” “appearing waters,” and “vineyards.”
After laying the foundation for a Christian interpretation in the beginning of the poem, Auden proceeds to describe the community that lives in the limestone landscape. The limestone community represents the Christian community. This is an allegorical poem with concrete meaning in the real world. In lines 21 through 43, Auden describes the nature of Christianity in its purest, most naive sense. The Christianity of which he writes is the kind that a person experiences when they are totally immersed in Christian dogma. Auden’s tone is condescension.
The boys who climb upon the rocks know
…each other too well to think
There are any important secrets.10
Here Auden begins to draw a picture of the experienced world of the steadfast Christian; it is exactly like the geography of the limestone landscape. The interior world of the Church is seen as a group of people bound together socially and religiously, thus forming a way to ignore the reality of the world. The Church is an isolation from the disruption caused by worldly proceedings. The Church is the utopian landscape of the poem. Within the social structure of the Church people come to know each other closely and, seemingly, completely. Thus there is a security formed through this belonging and total knowledge of each other.
The limestone inhabitant’s (the thorough Christian’s) relationship with God is a one-sided, humanistic one. Moral and ethical thought evade these people, and God is perceived in their own image. God is dealt with as if he were another person to be reasoned with on one’s own terms. God is seen as a person responding to “clever lines”11 and offers of a “good lay.”12 The inhabitants are
…accustomed to a stone that responds.12
This represents the idolatrous or mythological representations of God.
At this point Auden interjects a strange image – that of the volcano. In his “dream of eden”13 description, a dormant volcano was mentioned. People
…have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed.14
A dormant volcano represents the potential for an awakening and wrathful God.
The devout Christians that inhabit the limestone landscape are ignorant of the world outside their Christian conceptions. Every day they see only their own Christian selves. They can conceive of nothing that is like the real world – the poverty, disease and blight of other human existence. The devout and dogmatic Christians are, in short, a naive, isolated and highly protected people.
The poem is divided into two equal halves at line 43. The emphasis shifts to people who have left the limestone landscape, the confines of Christian dogma. Auden himself is a member of this group. To the “best and worst”15 who “sought / Immoderate soils,”16 life in the limestone landscape is like a “mad camp.”17 Auden is explaining why he left the dogmatic Christianity of the limestone landscape behind. The granite wastes (knowledge) called to him.
How permanent is death.18
echoes twentieth-century existentialist thought (Kierkegaard). In view of modern thought such as existentialism, “Saints-to-be” 19 have their dreams crushed. They slip “away sighing.”20 Christian thought can be dissolved within the bounds of existentialist thinking. (However, the same water that dissolves the limestone also provides protective sinkholes for the fish of the landscape. “Dissolving” thus has both positive and negative connotations.)
If naivete, isolation and protective existence exemplify the limestone landscape, what comprises the granite wastes of knowledge? The plains provide “room for armies to drill,”21 nature is altered, slaves exist and death without hope awaits. Wars are fought.
Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.22
This is the modern, rational world of man. Here in the granite wastes man causes his own destruction through his desire for belonging through power and his search for purpose through meaning. In contrast, both the needs of belonging and purpose are met. To Auden, it is apparent that problems also exist in the granites wastes of knowledge.
The “oceanic whisper”23 also calls to some. The people who answer this call are the ones assimilated most into the granite wastes of knowledge. Answering the call are the people who deny completely the limestone landscape of faith. There can be no such thing as God or “faultless love” or a “life to come” for these people. They exist within their own “solitude.”24
Auden admits that “all those voices were right.”25 He has a positive attitude toward the voices of knowledge. (After all, Auden did himself leave the limestone landscape.) He does not accept the granite wastes completely, however. This place of knowledge is not all that people make it out to be. The peace that the granite wastes offers is simply through a vision of the world. It offers no concrete point of reference, no God. It “asks and promises nothing.”26 Man simply tries to rebuild through knowledge that which he lost when he left the limestone landscape – faith. (Childhood is seen as a Eden-like existence. Man desires to return to the protected life of the child.) The peace that is offered is simply an explanation of the real world – the world that evades the religious.) Knowledge, then, is reduced to a mythology. It is a “tunnel” that connects the “dilapidated province” to the “big busy world.”27
Auden cannot totally disclaim knowledge either. He defines his place in the world as Poet and his purpose as Art. This lies between the two extremes of complete knowledge and complete faith. The Poet tries to reproduce reality in Art – to call “The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle.”28 The marble statues of the limestone landscape make Auden uneasy in that they
His antimythological myth.29
Auden’s poetry is an “antimythological myth” because it rejects the mythology of complete knowledge and complete faith, but in doing so, creates another mythology or representation of reality. The marble statues make Auden uneasy because they represent a possible truth – a non-myth: God. This would cause his own myths to crumble.
On the other side of the spectrum lies the Poet’s feelings toward knowledge. The purveyors of complete knowledge are simply “scientists” who rebuke the Poet’s
…concern for Nature’s
Auden expresses his fear of death and his desire for faith in the face of that fear. He has these fears in common with every other person – these fears are the “Common Prayer.”31 The Common Prayer represents everyman’s fear of death:
Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our Common Prayer, whose great comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell.32
These prayers are music declaring hope. They resonate with everyone.
Auden goes on to write of his attitudes toward the purpose of knowledge and faith. The purpose of knowledge is to make us aware that death is inevitable and faith is an expression of hope.
In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point: …33
Auden now comes to the purpose of his poem. “In Praise of Limestone” is just what the title suggests. The praise comes in the form of a concession. After carefully structuring the metaphorical extremes of the limestone landscape and the granite wastes, between which Auden stands as Poet, Auden concedes that only the limestone landscape lends itself to a possible revelation of Truth. In addition, he praises naive Christians for what they embody.
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.34
“In Praise of Limestone” strikingly parallels the struggles between Gnostic and Christian world views of the first century. This conflict can be seen most clearly in the Gospel of John, where the author tries to unite knowledge in Jesus – the Word become Flesh. W.H. Auden successfully recreates that conflict for modern man in his poem, “In Praise of Limestone.”
1“In Praise of Limestone,” lines 91-92.