Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Always Check Your Sources: A Morality Play in One Act


If one is reading a secondary source but also wants to be sure he, you know, knows something, it is advisable to track down primary sources in order to check the veracity of claims made about some figure, text, or whatever. “Trust, but verify,” as the Gipper said.

Scene: Someone poring over a book.

Reading Richard Davenport-Hines’s (fascinating) biography of W.H. Auden, I came to the following sick burn on W.B. Yeats’s fascination with the occult:

[A]fter Yeats’s death Auden was the acknowledged master of such ‘occasional poems’ [as ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory], perhaps the most notable being ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ (1939) while others like ‘September 1, 1939’ vie with Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’ in both theme and structure. Yeats’s cosmology and occultism–his dependence for ideas on his wife’s planchette–were risible to Auden by 1947. ‘How could Yeats, with his great aesthetic appreciation of aristocracy, ancestral houses, ceremonious tradition, take up something so essentially lower-middle class–or should I say Southern Californian–so ineluctably associated with suburban villas and clearly unattractive faces?’ he demanded. ‘A.E. Housman’s pessimistic stoicism seems to me nonsense too, but at least it is a kind of nonsense that can be believed in by a gentleman–but mediums, spells, the Mysterious Orient–how embarrassing.’ (75-6; I have restored Auden’s original emphasis to the word “how”)

Sorry, California; Auden evidently wasn’t a fan of The O.C. A sick burn, as I say.

There is, however, a catch when one looks to the original. The quotation comes from an essay Auden wrote for The Kenyon Review in 1948 (not 1947) called “Yeats as an Example.”1 Here is the catch: Auden means it as a compliment and (as often) a self-criticism. In the very next sentence, he goes on to say:

In fact, of course, it is to Yeats’s credit, and an example to me, that he ignored such considerations, nor, granted that his Weltanschauung was false, can we claim credit for rejecting what we have no temptation to accept, nor deny that the poetry he wrote involving it is very good. What we should consider, then, is firstly, why Celtic mythology in his earlier phases, and occult symbolism in his later, should have attracted Yeats when they fail to attract us; secondly, what are the comparable kinds of beliefs to which we are drawn and why; thirdly, what is the relation between myth, belief, and poetry? (189)

In doing what he did, Yeats, although believing something false, could still serve as an example to Auden of the way in which some kind of mythic substructure is necessary for poesis. Not only so, but Auden is making fun of his own mockery: we should “claim no credit for rejecting what we have no temptation to accept”; that “we” includes Auden–he had no temptation to accept occultism–and so he is critiquing himself for his self-satisfied, blistering send-up of Yeats that he has just uttered.

A short digression: for those interested, this is how he sets up the “conflict” for Yeats’s generation, which he takes to be different from the conflict of his own.

Yeats’s generation grew up in a world where the great conflict was between the Religion of Reason and the Religion of Imagination, objective truth and subjective truth, the Universal and the Individual.

Further, Reason, Science, the general, seemed to be winning and Imagination, Art, and the individual on the defensive. Now in all conflicts it is the side which takes the offensive that defines the issues which their opponents have to defend, so that when scientists said, “Science is knowledge of reality, Art is a fairyland,” the artists were drive to reply, “Very well, but fairies are fun, science is dull.” When the former said, “Art has no relation to life,” the latter retorted, “Thank God.” To the assertion that “every mind can recognize the absolute truths of science, but the values of art are purely relative, an arbitrary affair of individual taste,” came back the counterclaim, “Only the exceptional individual matters.”

Thus, if we find Yeats adopting a cosmology apparently on purely aesthetic grounds, i.e., not because it is true but because it is interesting; or Joyce attempting to convert the whole of existence into words; or even a dialectician like Shaw, after the most brilliant and devastating criticism of the pretensions of scientists, spoiling his case by being a crank and espousing Lamarckism, we must see their reactions, I think, if we are to understand them, in terms of a polemical situation in which they accepted–they probably could do nothing else–the antithesis between reason and imagination which the natural sciences of their time forced upon them, only reversing, with the excessive violence of men defending a narrow place against superior numbers, the value signs on each side. (189-90)

Back to the point. The student who wants to get at the fact of some matter must frequently do his own homework. Often you will find confirmation of claims made in secondary works; but sometimes you will not. And instances of this latter type are in fact one of the most significant means by which knowledge grows. This applies as much in the history of theology as it does in the history of literature or the history of ideas, and so the practice of source-checking is a habit worth forming, e.g. whenever, for instance, David Bentley Hart (say) begins a sentence with the words, “Calvin claims” vel sim.2 Indeed, source-checking is a way of loving your neighbor as yourself: not only do you learn something; you are also of service to others.

Finis. Exeunt omnes.


  1. I hope to write a longer piece on this essay in the nearish future. It is reprinted in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume II: 1939-48, 384-90.
  2. The sentence wouldn’t begin that way, of course; it would be purplishly overwritten as something like, “The repellent and serpentine Calvin, in a characteristically hemorrhoidal paroxysm of misanthropy, perversely postulates…”.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.