The Birth of Angels: Contrasting the Quest for Enlightenment in the Poetry of Auden and Dobyns


In an age where frivolity and carelessness a decade earlier had resulted in widespread economic strife, young poet W.H. Auden began to write of the ignorance of the human character. Indeed, a basic undercurrent of Auden’s poetry is that the general human character makes the quest for true enlightenment nearly impossible, because humans perpetuate their own unenlightened mindsets. Years later, Stephen Dobyns continued to write of this lack of understanding, notably in the collection Mystery, So Long. However, although their poetry collectively critiques the human race’s lack of understanding of the larger universe, Dobyns suggests that this struggle to reach enlightenment stems from uncontrollable historical forces. Auden, however, maintains that the general ignorance of the human character was brought on by and is perpetuated by human actions. Thus, the poets essentially differ in their view of whether history itself is man-made or whether it moves of its own accord. This difference is demonstrated both by the line structure and the portrayal of time throughout their poetry, as well as by the motifs and allusions each particular poet chooses to utilize. Their portrayals of such concepts as the self, religion, and knowledge also further differentiate their beliefs.

The basic structure of the poetry of Auden and Dobyns reflects their differing stances on the role of external forces in rendering humans incapable of illumination. Of all Auden’s poetry, “Spain,” which is about the Fascist invasion of the country in 1937, best represents his idea that incomprehension of the universe stems from a purely human inability to possess a profound perspective. Critic James Fountain claims that in the poem, “there is a sense of building toward war as an emotional and physical outlet for…existential anguish” (172). Humans have caught themselves in a never-ending circle, in other words–unable to find enlightenment, they will engage in acts of violence, such as war, in a search for meaning, which in turn leads to more despair and quest for illumination.

“Spain” is divided into three distinct segments of time, namely yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Throughout the poem, Auden defines these periods by the human accomplishments that occurred within them:

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,

The construction of railways in the colonial desert;

                Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle (17-20).

The lecture detailing events that happened long ago in the minds of students but that in the context of the world itself occurred relatively recently suggests the inherent inconsistency of time. Auden implies that time itself is a man-made construct, created as a way of keeping track of human accomplishment. Therefore, the poem reinforces the idea that humans have created everything within the world’s reality. Not only is each period of time defined by human accomplishments, but most of the accomplishments listed are materials that were used to industrialize the world, a transformation which inevitably led to less time for meditation. Thus, Auden both defines time as invented by man and provides reasoning for why man has perpetuated his own ignorance of his smallness in the universe.

Dobyns furthers the idea of contemplation diminishing with technology in his poem “Mystery, So Long,” the titular work of the collection. “…the mystery started to disappear, just as giants and ogres/ had disappeared–the ones who had terrified villages.” (14-15). Dobyns is in accord with Auden regarding the idea that as humans believe themselves to grow more sophisticated with increased knowledge and technology, they dismiss the mysteries of life as unworthy of their attentions. However, like almost every other poem in the collection, “Mystery, So Long” is composed of several uniform stanzas of five lines each. Sentences continue on through the breaks in stanzas, creating a connecting thread between every component of the poem. “Spain” indents at seemingly arbitrary spots, whereas Dobyns’ lines consistently begin and end within the same set of margins. Dobyns’ poetry thus possesses an overarching order to its structure that is absent in Auden’s poetry.

In addition to the physical structure of their poetry, Auden and Dobyns select motifs and allusions carefully in order to invoke their differing views of the struggle toward enlightenment. Stars and clocks, for example, are recurring images throughout much of Auden’s poetry. Though traditionally associated with universal forces outside of human control, when stars and clocks appear in Auden’s poetry they are almost always altered by mankind. The speaker of the poem “Funeral Blues” laments “Stop all the clocks…/the stars are not wanted now; put out every one/ pack up the moon and dismantle the sun…” (1; 13-14). Again, an example emerges where humans control elements that are often thought to be uncontrollable. The narrator demands that time be stopped to reflect his or her despair, suggesting that time is only a man-made construct that can be manipulated. Meanwhile, the stars, the moon, and the sun are shed of their celestial grandeur and terminated by the human hand. The implication is that if humans are in complete control of their environment, then their inability to see the world outside the context of their selves is also a man-made problem.

With regard to “Spain,” critic Thomas Fountain writes of the motifs Auden uses, “…the speaker refers…to the disturbance to Spain’s karma caused by this…man-made, “inventive” Europe throwing Spain’s natural, imperfect equilibrium out of kilter” (172).  Fountain adds a dimension to Auden‘s choice of motifs, suggesting that they not only reinforce man’s complete control over his actions and destiny but also his subsequent acts of destroying and throwing off the state of the world around him. Auden’s use of war imagery throughout the ages intertwined with the repeated phrase “but to-day the struggle,” draws a clear line of blame from independent human actions to the lack of coherence in the modern world.

Dobyns, in contrast, alludes to the Greek figure Icarus continually in order to suggest that humans are not in complete control of their lives and thus cannot be held entirely responsible for their unenlightened state. In his poem “Icarus”, Dobyns argues, “But how could he appreciate/his freedom without knowing the exact point/where freedom stopped?/…and the sun dissolved the wax and he fell” (3-6).  If Icarus is viewed as a metaphor for the human race, then humans have or perceive themselves to have control at least over a small part of their lives. Like Icarus’s wax wings, however, this perception of control gives them false confidence, and in striving too high to reach enlightenment they inevitably are scorched by the sun and driven back to their mundane existences. Thus, the sun here plays quite a different role than the sun in “Funeral Blues”. In perceiving that Icarus has flown too far, the sun has the power to thrust him back down, representing those historical forces which have combined to prevent the enlightenment of the majority of the human race. Dobyns also alludes to angels in at least half of his poems. Angels, of course, are symbols of forces that are outside of human control, and Dobyns inextricably links them to the idea of self throughout his work, thus furthering the idea that self-concept and world viewpoints are not entirely creations of man.

Indeed, Dobyns tends to portray the human self as intertwined with and influenced by external factors around it, while Auden often portrays it as an independent entity, separate from even the physical body with which it is associated. Dobyns’ poetry consistently contrasts vibrant, celestial images with the monotonous humdrum of daily human existence, indicating that multiple layers of complexity cloud and define the world and make the idea of a completely man-made existence irrational. In “The Birth of Angels,” this tool is exemplified. The poem describes an elderly man who, as he walks home, reflects upon how quickly his life has fled before him. “At the curb he puts a hand to his chest. He feels/a fluttering which suggests the birth of angels:/a sudden consciousness, the thrashing of wings.” (10-12). Thus, Dobyns’ words indicate a sudden revelation, made almost holy because it is symbolized by the creation of sacred, ultra-celestial creatures. These lines demonstrate that, according to Dobyns, enlightenment can be touched upon by humans, and this enlightenment is felt as part of a joint effort between mind and body. In other words, the heart reacts and the man perceives this reaction as the birth of angels–the two entities are united in a quest to find meaning in their existence.

In Auden’s poetry, on the contrary, the human mind is written about as a totally independent entity, separated even from the body itself. It has been said that the two main components of Auden’s poetry are “surprising similes, which have a reductive or trivializing effect; and personified abstractions” (Bergonzi 70). The first characteristic is especially prevalent in Auden’s use of religious imagery in his poetry, but the second is most important in determining the effect of his mind-body distinction. When he separates the mind and the body through his use of personification, he creates a dualism within the function of the whole that mimics what is wrong with the function of the whole. In “Spain”, a conversation is carried on between “the nations” and “the life”, where the first demands that the second do something about stopping the destruction of civilized cities in war, but “the life” responds that it cannot because it must follow whatever “the nations” do (37-56). On a most basic level, the conversation indicates Auden’s theory that  distance from enlightenment is due to a human inability to comprehend the larger universe, since life concedes the point that it must follow whatever path the man-made nations lay out for it.

On yet another level, this conversation represents a mind-body duality that runs throughout Auden’s work. In this case, the concrete, tangible “nations” are the mind, while “life” is the body. “Whereas the body can only speak audibly, Auden suggests that the mind is able to speak inaudibly, is able to speak against the wishes of the body or without its help” (Hamilton 414). With this distinction, it becomes even clearer that in Auden’s poetry the mind, or the human character, acts without any influence or “help” from the body, or external forces. In Dobyns’ poetry, mind and body are united under the whole human being, who seeks the meaning of life but is rebuffed again and again by overarching historical and social forces. Auden‘s human is inherently divided between mind and body. His metaphor both indicates that the human mind is the one huge factor behind all actions that have perpetuated ignorance and that the inherent division of the human character is what causes it to perpetuate this ignorance. “Spain” concludes, “History to the Defeated/May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon” (104-105). Thus, history is portrayed as merely an onlooker, unable to intervene or forgive the actions of human beings.

The manner in which the two poets use religious imagery and allusion further indicates the differences in their ideas. “Vespers,” a section of one of Auden’s few religious poems, “Horae Cannoicae,” deals with the inner turmoil two figures from totally different walks of life feel toward each other as they pass on the street. “He would like to see me cleaning latrines: I would like to see him removed/ to some other planet,” laments the speaker (18-19). Vespers are evening prayers in the Catholic Church. Thus, to Auden, prayer is completely human, the fretting and contemplation that runs beneath the surface of casual encounters. Auden strips the concept of religion down to its barest elements in order to expose the basic humanity at its core. In addition, Curtis writes, “The poem is spoken by the Arcadian who understands himself and his anti-type, the Utopian, in terms of their contrasting and irreconcilable dreams of the Happy Place” (204). Auden’s vespers chronicle one of the problems central to the pursuit of enlightenment; the concept of what enlightenment is changes across cultures. Without a unified idea of what to search for, the search for enlightenment has thus far in history has led to little fruition.

Dobyns’ heavy use of religious imagery in his poems is important to understanding how his ideas on the human condition differ from Auden’s. As opposed to Auden, Dobyns often elevates the ordinary status of the human being to an almost religious level. In the poem “Jonah’s Flight to Tarshish,” for example, an elderly landlady waits hopefully, almost prayerfully for the arrival of a new, male tenant that she hopes will prove to be a companion. Such an ordinary, non-religious event is elevated to the status of a holy occurrence; the title of the poem echoes the almost sacred nature of the elderly woman’s longing. “To welcome him, she had painted the spare room,/ bought a bed and dresser, nothing exceptional–a comfortable chair because, from what she heard,/he liked to read…” (3-5). The spare and unassuming phrasing of the words seemingly indicates the woman’s indifference. However, they sound forced, as though in actuality they emphasize her intense and secret need for companionship. This discord between external actions and internal hopes, thoughts, and dreams is to Dobyns a central element of existence. He builds up the small, inner longings of people to an elevated status, suggesting that humanity at its core is of a spiritual nature. With this view in mind, all acts of human kindness, longing, and despair are displays of the human spirit. In of themselves they possess an almost unearthly quality, as if they are connected with pathways of the greater universe.

Interestingly, Auden regards poetry much in the same way he regards the human struggle, as rather base and unable to even glimpse the deeper meaning of the larger world. “…he found poetry valuable only when it acknowledged its hopeless, incompetent distance from anything true or good that it tried to represent” (Jacobs 27). Since language is a man-made construction, and poetry is composed of language, Auden sees poetry not as glimpsing truth but as floundering around in an area it knows little about. Man therefore perpetuates his ignorance, for in writing of those questions for which he has no answer, he is only muddling his already confused view of the world’s meaning. Auden’s view toward poetry can be seen as almost disdainful.

Dobyns, on the other hand, seems to attribute an almost religious significance to the meaning of poetry. In “Jonah’s Flight to Tarshish,” the elderly woman wonders, “and was it wrong to hope for a greater intimacy,/ a companion to share her long evenings?/…oh, the waves, the waves–/ how they rush forward and retreat as if they’ve just/ heard a story, which they have chosen not to repeat” (10-11, 13-15). Words like “waves” and “intimacy,” along with the repetition of phrases and the use of a rhetorical question, rends the poem soft and soothing, reminiscent almost of a sad lullaby, a chronicle of the passing of the human life. These understated words elevate not only human existence but also poetry itself to an almost spiritual level. The poem portrays human life and longing as it is, without flourishes, and because of this ability it becomes a key to a deeper understanding of the world, a step toward enlightenment. Thus, not only the poets’ treatment of religion but also their view toward the medium of poetry itself illuminates their differing views on the human struggle for enlightenment.

The culminating difference in how Auden and Dobyns portray the human struggle for enlightenment is best indicated by their different characterizations of this search for knowledge itself. While Auden believes that humans perpetuate their own ignorance, it is also no stretch to fathom that he sees the process of enlightenment itself as resulting from entirely man-made constructs and human processes. Dobyns argues in his poem, “Last Wisdom,” however, that human qualities cannot be in of themselves enough to obtain enlightenment. In other words, the whole is not the sum of its tangible parts, with regards to the universe. In the poem, Daedalus makes wood figures to represent all of the people he has lost, such as his wife, his sister, his nephew, and of course his son Icarus. No matter how many realistic, humanlike qualities he can give them, though, Daedalus can never perfectly recreate who they were as human beings (17-23). Thus, the poem reinforces the precept that the state of being human cannot be artificially recreated in a lab; in other words, humans themselves are not the product of human innovation, which deflates Auden’s theory that everything on earth is a man-made construct.

The poem is called “Last Wisdom,” and the use of the latter word brings the dimension of knowledge and wisdom into the poem’s meaning. Daedalus pursues knowledge, in a manner of speaking, because he desires to possess the ability to re-invent his friends and family that have left him; however, the poem clearly indicates that this knowledge can never be had. “Was this the wisdom to come to him last?/ That nothing could rid him of his isolation?/ His toys no longer hid what was there: himself/ and the night and the only entry into night.” (29-32). Perhaps at some stages of the individual’s life, human motives and bonds muddle the meaning of the larger universe, such as Daedalus’s dolls do here. However, as Dobyns’ poetry has already indicated, moments approach when meaning is suddenly illuminated, if only for a moment, when human forces have been removed from sight. Enlightenment rests, then, not necessarily in book knowledge, which represents only the remarks of obstructive human observation, but in the ability to transcend ordinary existence and understand the self as a small component of a larger universe.

Auden similarly dismisses the pursuit of book knowledge alone in his poem “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics,” but for different reasons entirely. He makes the argument that the human quest for knowledge only leads to more questions.

Our eyes prefer to suppose…

That architects enclose

A quiet Euclidean space:

Exploded myths–but who
Would feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle? (25, 28-32)

The sciences, which are perhaps the ultimate representations of the human attempt to explain away the mystery of life, would have students believe that the world functions according to an exact, orderly, and scientific fashion. However, rather than enlighten the human race, theories of physics only lay the groundwork for ever more profound and thought-provoking questions, thrusting the human race further and further away from understanding the universe. Again, humans perpetuate their own ignorance.

Auden and Dobyns both capture the essence of the human quest for enlightenment in their work, pursuing this end doggedly with much talk of religion, the pursuit of knowledge, and the breaking of boundaries. Dobyns treats his subject matter with more kindness than Auden, however. Writing in the latter half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in an era where the quest for human enlightenment grows less and less visible, like Dobyns’ mystery, he suggests that perhaps this is not entirely due to the entire race itself but to uncontrollable events and influences. In other words, Dobyns indicates that history as a force moves time and that the people who are carried along with it are at a loss to change it. Auden, however, views history, time, and all other abstract concepts as human constructions. Everything is man-made, and thus only humans themselves can be blamed for their floundering from the course of enlightenment in war and loathing. Both men are concerned with the lack of enlightenment in the modern world, but the pessimist Auden believes the race is doomed, while the optimist Dobyns writes that there is hope–hope enough, at least, to prepare for “the birth of angels”. To understand these differences in their beliefs is to begin to approach that concept of which they talk, human enlightenment. Regardless of whether Auden believes that poetry is helpless in illuminating or whether Dobyns sees it as a key to meaning, both men realize the urgency of understanding the context of human existence; their conflicting views on the subject hopefully will pave the way for a new dimension of human thought.












Works Cited

Auden, W.H. “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics.” New York: Vintage
International, 2007. 257-258

–. “Funeral Blues.” Selected Poems. New York: Vintage International, 2007.

–. Horae Cannonicae. “Vespers.” New York: Vintage International, 2007.

–. “Spain.” Selected Poems. New York: Vintage International, 2007. 54-57.

Bergonzi, Bernard. “Auden and the Audenesque.” Encounter. (1975): 65-75

Curtis, Jan. “W.H. Auden’s “Vespers”: A Christian Refutation of Utopian Dreams of
Ultimate Fulfillment.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature. 52.3 (2000):

Dobyns, Stephen. “The Birth of Angels.” Mystery, So Long. New York: Penguin Poets,
2005. 46.

–. “Icarus.” Mystery, So Long. New York: Penguin Poets, 2005. 85-86

–. “Jonah’s Flight to Tarshish.” Mystery, So Long. New York: Penguin
Poets, 2005. 47.

–. “Last Wisdom.” New York: Penguin Poets, 2005. 95.

–. “Mystery, So Long.” Mystery, So Long. New York: Penguin Poets,
2005. 85-86

Fountain, James Richard Thomas. “Auden’s Spain.” The Explicator. 65.3 (2007): 171-

Hamilton, A. “Mapping the Mind and the Body: On W.H. Auden’s Personifications.”
Style. 36.3 (2002): 408-421

Jacobs, Alan. “Auden and the Limits of Poetry.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of
Religion and Public Life. (2001): 26-35.