This is for the philistines, to help you get in touch with your inner non-philistine and slay the Goliath within you. Dare to be a David!
Name-checking one’s literary influences has a long pedigree. One might mention Ennius’ Pythagorean dream in which the ghost of Homer appeared to him and told him that his soul had transmigrated into the Roman poet (after being a peacock), or Ovid’s playful refusal to Aeneidize at the beginning of the Amores. The first Christian poet to create a catalog of exclusively Christian poetic predecessors was the sixth-century Venantius Fortunatus in his Vita Martini (he includes Juvencus, Sedulius, Orientius, Prudentius, Paulinus of Périgueux, Arator, and Avitus).
Sometimes this procedure could take the form of a poem about one’s library; this is what Theodore Beza does, as detailed in an excellent article by Kirk Summers. Sometimes it would include significant anxiety about working in the shadows of those predecessors; this would apply to Ovid. 1
In his New Year Letter (1940), 2 W.H. Auden combines both of these traits, the library 3 and the anxiety of influence. In this little series, I’m simply going to note the poets he takes as his most important predecessors.
But first, to clear the ground, we should see how Auden sits on his anxious bench. He introduces the relevant section of the poem as follows:
They challenge, warn and witness. Who
That ever has the rashness to
Believe that he is one of those
The greatest of vocations chose,
Is not perpetually afraid
That he’s unworthy of his trade,
As round his tiny homestead spread
The grand constructions of the dead,
Nor conscious, as he works, of their
Complete uncompromising stare,
And the surveillance of a board
Whose warrant cannot be ignored?
O often, often must he face,
Whether the critics blame or praise,
Young, high-brow, popular or rich,
That summary tribunal which
In a perpetual session sits,
And answer, if he can, to its
Intense interrogation. Though
Considerate and mild and low
The voices of the questioners,
Although they delegate to us
Both prosecution and defense,
Accept our rules of evidence
And pass no sentence but our own,
Yet, as he faces them alone,
O who can show convincing proof
That he is worhty of their love?
Who ever rose to read aloud
Before that quiet attentive crowd
And did not falter as he read,
Stammer, sit down, and hang his head?
Each one, so liberal is the law,
May choose whom he appears before,
Pick any influential ghost 4
From those whom he admires the most.
Auden then proceeds to his catalog of poets. New Year Letter was written at the time Auden was returning to the Christian faith and the church (he was an Anglican), and the first poet he includes is the Christian poet Dante–though, interestingly, he does not name him (perhaps an anxiety-induced apotropaic move to ward off Dante’s critical stare?), while devoting more lines to him than to any other.
Auden describes Dante thus:
So, when my name is called, I face,
Presiding coldly on my case,
That lean hard-bitten pioneer
Who spoiled a temporal career
And to the supernatural brought
His passion, senses, will and thought,
By Amor Rationalis led
Through the three kingdoms of the dead,
In concrete detail saw the whole
Environment that keeps the soul,
And grasped in its complexity
The Catholic ecology,
Described the savage fauna he
In Malebolge’s fissure found,
And fringe of blessed flora round
A juster nucleus than Rome,
Where love had its creative home.
For Auden, Dante is a properly ordered poet, who uses his passion, senses, will, and thought together, but with all governed by a rational love (Amor Rationalis); so led, Dante can integrate the whole and the part (“In concrete detail saw the whole”), one of Auden’s chief challenges in his early career.