A Letter To John Dryden

by James McAuley

James McAuley

Dear John, whoever now takes pen to write
Or at the keys tap-taps through half the night
To give a new Religio Laici
Or Hind and Panther to this vacant sly
Neurotic modern world, must first take note
That things are not the same as when you wrote.
The Modern Mind was then scarce embryonic
Which now stands forth loud, indistinct, moronic.
The great Unculture that you feared might be
"Drawn to the dregs of a democracy"
Is full upon us; here it sours and thickens
Till every work of art and honour sickens.
You chose for your attempt a kind of verse
Well-bred and easy, energetic, terse;
Reason might walk in it, or boldly fence,
And all was done with spirit and with sense.
But who cares now for reason?—when we see
The very guardians of philosophy
Conceive it as their task to warn the youth
Against the search for philosophic truth;
Rather to keep a vacuum in their head
Wherein opinions may, at most, be bred,
Such as excite or soothe or subtly flatter,
And at the lightest change of feeling, scatter,
But never principles, never proofs—these do not matter.
How would you go about it, John, I ask,
What means and metres summon to your task,
What motives find of credibility
In such a fog of insipidity?
Perhaps you'd choose T. Eliot's mighty line,
To drift, and flutter, hesitate, opine,
Hint at a meaning, murmur that God knows,
And gently settle in a soup of prose.
Or would you use the old means, and reach out
To bang the heads of philosophic doubt
Between two rhymes, and knock the feathers out?
When you invoked your genius, to write
Within that seventeenth-century twilight
Where Milton loomed, and Crashaw's silver cry
Rose like a fountain in obscurity,
It seems the serious poet could rely
Upon a well-instructed audience.
The night had not yet come when men of sense
Would let things slide in mere indifference;
Even strife-weary minds that would deny,
Or minds fired with the new cupidity,
Had learned the creed of Christianity,
The scope, the basis, and the argument,
And all the long dissensions of dissent.
But now, dear John, the thing's no longer so:
They do not disbelieve, they do not know.
Too long to tell how this has come about;
I mention a few causes that stand out.
The puzzled sects have let their doctrines sag,
Or melt to one like lollies in a bag,
Until the Christian faith has seemed to mean
Only: "Be good, be kind, God save the Queen."
Like little frogs in Liberalism's pool
They called in canting chorus for the rule
Of their King Stork, the omnivorous state school.
This specious monster was proclaimed to be
Neutral and secular, uniform and free.
Neutral against whom? one murmurs plaintively.
For secular soons turns to secularist
(What we omit, we teach will not be missed),
And neutral in its common acceptation
Means, History in the Whig interpretation:
Science-powered the Wheel of Progress goes
From age of poetry to age of prose,
From Reformation on to Revolution,
And forward to yet grander Dissolution;
Thus History labours in progressive throes,
While only Tories jib, or Catholics oppose.
Next, crowning all, that enigmatic pile
Where ancient wisdom scarce evokes a smile,
The University, confronts the land,
Neutral of course, and secular, and bland;
Where Christ, Augustine, and the Stagirite
Lie dead and buried, neither wrong nor right,
Under a sneer of silence cold as arctic night.
Even Humanities can be arranged
To leave the state-school mind intact, unchanged;
In silence those unmeaning doctrines rest
That once were the foundation of the West.
No fear at all the student will find out
What all those wars and poems are about.
Tell me, dear John, how does a poet write
For nescience dwindled to a sickly spite?
—Not that we lack outright deliberate foes:
From Calvin to Karl Marx the battle goes,
Old korans change for new; for us there's small repose.
Protestant rancours had begun to abate,
But Communists blew up the fires of hate;
Filth that the sectaries had ceased to utter
Progressives quickly scavenge from the gutter;
Obedient mouths, they lick the matter down
And carry new infection through the town.
Neither did Adolf's Kampf long hesitate
To tear Christ's Body with frenetic hate;
And doubtless there will be, as the world goes,
Still other korans, in yet filthier prose.
It's not these open enemies I would touch—
The truth has touched them, and it hurt too much:
Not seldom men in seeking to defy
Their Lord have seen the pity in his eye;
Many a one has held the clothes like Saul
And risen not long after to be Paul;
Enmity does not make my spirits fall.
But what of those whose powers, too long untried,
Have atrophied for lack of use and died,
The disinherited defrauded rout
Who do not think or dream, deny or doubt,
But simply don't know what it's all about?
These somehow I would touch, if only by
The arrow and the gleam of poetry.
For them the world is what they feel and see;
A world of miracles and of angels, nay,
Or right and wrong, is but a fairy play
To them: not normal, and not real. They
Have this one maxim, and they make it do:
"Whatever I'm not used to is not true."
O purest Positivism, golden rule,
O sharpest razor drawn from Ockham's school!
So armed, they doom themselves to live and die
In an impoverished reality.
Full times are these, could men but come awake
And summon all their powers to overtake
Marvels that science flings before their eyes.
Could men but come awake:—enchantments keep
Their noblest faculties held fast in sleep;
And frightful dreams, and real fears alas,
Before their soggy haunted vision pass;
Not least the Reverend Malthus with his trick
Of killing conscience by arithmetic.
They see the disUnited Nations stand
Like troubled augurs in a querulous band,
Examining while doubts and fears increase
The clockwork entrails of a Dove of Peace.
Darkness over the earth!—and men now ask
How shall we rally to a common task,
How shall our warring atoms all agree,
What is the basis of world unity?
At once stands forth the Millenarian,
Secularist, totalitarian,
A lineal descendant by his creed
Of the true old enthusiastic breed,
A haughty Gnostic, modern Manichee—
Moscow his Third Rome and Fifth Monarchy—
Consorted by the shrill discordant cries
Of piddling Laskis and of yelping Nyes
And demi-Fabians of exiguous size.
To his illumined eye and his alone
The secret of the universe is shown;
For him the cosmic laws are crystal-clear
That bring the mighty consummation near;
And all is written down for all to scan
Within the clotted text of a koran.
Nor do the old believers stand aloof;
They work to stop the holes and fix the roof
Of ancient fideisms incapable of proof.
Who knows if Tao will keep its secret hold?
Cracked but not broken is the Hindu mould,
Islam still dreams its cube of solid power,
And a new Buddha awaits his occult hour.
Deep wisdom and intrinsic errors lie
In inextricable futility.
Here too a fellow-travelling band attends,
Of Westerners with means who look for ends.
What wonder men eat men and nations nations
Amid the clash of warring revelations?
Without credentials, with no reasons given,
They simply say they know the way to heaven.
But these, on whom my anguish lingers most,
The disinherited and anxious host
Of half-way-decent simple stunted souls,
What hidden principle is it controls
Their creedless thoughts? What flag hangs on their poles?
It may be no one principle indeed,
But unexamined shreds of every creed;
And certainly their minds contain a hash
Of random notions in a tasteless mash
(School-tags, readers' digests, bits of courses,
Sunday school, and Marx, and occult forces);
But yet one principle I seem to scry
Lurking in this grey obscurity:
"Matter unites; the spirit but divides."
This topsy-turvy principle presides.
The search for truth, they feel, goes unrewarded:
Creeds and opinions must be disregarded;
Let men unite upon material goods,
Higher living standards, healthier foods;
With krilium, clinics, housing, and hygiene,
A world well organized, well fed, and—clean!
Who could despise such aims who once has seen
What miseries in destitution breed,
Misshapen life and death in bitter need?
But how in these good causes to unite?
How to decide what means are wrong or right?
How overcome our greed and sloth and spite?
The Millenarian gives a clear reply:
"I give the word to all. Believe or die.
Each man by me is schooled, each man is tasked."
But here these questions are not even asked;
Agnostics, they will work without a word,
And sooner than be fooled will be absurd;
Or rather, since all thoughts and deeds imply
Some principle, these creedless ones rely
Upon old habit, or pick up the latest cry,
Wittingly or not, it's hard to tell.
—Fare forward, fellow-travelling liberal
For ever dancing to some alien song,
And everything by turns but nothing long!
Material interests cannot but divide
Unless we are of one mind to decide
Who shall have what, how much, and when, and why.
We live by spirit; by the flesh we die.
The law of Moses said it very clearly:
Man cannot live by Oslo lunches merely,
But by a word formed in the intellect;
And as that word is false or true, expect
Evil or good to follow. John, we know
There can be no perfection here below;
Yet men may gain a partial unity
In spite of difference, if they agree
At least on certain things—things that are certain,
Not mysteries behind a Gnostic curtain—
If they accept at least the primacy
Of spirit, and the moral law that's writ
Deep in man's heart till he defaces it.
But if men ask where full peace lies indeed,
You knew the answer, John, to strife of creed:
Christ is what men have in common, he,
He is the Word, the source of unity,
The Reason of man's reason, and its Light;
Those who participate in him, unite,
And those who turn their backs face out to endless night.
Who does not gather with the Logos, scatters;
With him, man makes and mends, without him, shatters,
And nothing that he schemes or hopes for matters.
No fideism this, no blank command,
Christ carries his credentials in his hand;
By evidence is he made evident,
The crucial witness of a true event;
By reason men may come to find their Reason;
Prepare the soil, and faith will come in season.
So far is clear; yet, John, I have not found
The answer to the question I propound:
How show Christ forth in a democratism,
Whose god's opinion, rent by every schism,
Like Dionysus with crude clamour torn
And in each daily newspaper reborn?
They'd not believe, though Lazarus or you
Rose from the dead: they'd note your point of view.
Democratism—not democracy:
To elect one's rulers and be wisely free
Is rational and Christian liberty;
But when the people's breath, with stench and burp
Of swollen passions, offers to usurp
The throne of God and make the moral law,
Then comes the dismal chaos you foresaw;
And those who will not countenance what they're at
Must bear the name of anti-democrat.
As you and every wise man could foresee,
Democratism eats democracy
And brings on, swift or slow, a tyranny.
The framework of the state is up for sale,
Ethics put to the vote: will right prevail?
They measure "values" by a crude amount,
And fix their morals by a Kinsey-count;
A formless relativism ends our days,
And good and evil are but culture-traits.
The people speak for God? Then little wonder
What God has joined the voters put asunder:
Marriage, holy estate, has dwindled till
It seems more like a tenancy at will.
The children, the mere debris, feel the tear,
And quiver from the treacherous parents' care;
Many, simply huddled out of sight
In orphanages, later come to light
In clinics or asylums or the jails,
Or by their suicides. It's true; but no one quails.
See how the liberal like Pilate stands,
Says, "What is truth?" and washes his faint hands,
Bidding the populace vote as they please
For or against the eternal verities!
Even the law of murder can be changed:
Say "therapeutic", and the thing's arranged:
Pattern of heroic sacrifice,
Star of devotion in her children's eyes,
The pregnant mother summons good advice:
It is not murder if the child's not seen;
This is what sentimental ethics mean.
Men look to seats of learning in their doubt,
But seats of learning have contracted out
Of natural law, and bid us do the same:
Truth has no rights that error may not claim;
"Dogma" is dead; the student's vision clears:
Philosophers are but opinioneers;
Opinions are all equal—till it's found
That some must be discouraged. On what ground?
Deep in the ranks of academic doubt
Confusion spreads: while some in panic shout,
"Root out the reds! Look under all the beds!"
Others remark, "When there's no certain truth,
Why should not Communists instruct the youth?
At most you might decide to damp their song
Because it's inconvenient—not because it's wrong."
Poor public Beast! So stuffed with raw opinion,
Victim the more, the more it seeks dominion,
Flattered and teased until it does not know
Critic from traitor, loyal friend from foe,
With angst and ulcers in its rumbling maw:
Behold the maker of the moral law!
Stuffed full, yet hungry, how it longs for food,
Yet cannot bear the things might do it good.
Bring medicine, and offer sound nutrition,
It talks of old wives' tales and superstition,
And murmurs darkly of the Spanish Inquisition,
With something about Franco, too—poor Spain,
The scapegoat of democratistic pain!
But now, by some new prompting, I can see
A ray of light in my perplexity.
Involved in literature, I tend to think
Too much of arguments of pen and ink;
Which have their place, and in their place are good,
And sometimes may convince, if understood;
But what of arguments of flesh and blood?
Men do not trust their reason? Very well,
Perhaps the heart has something left to tell.
Deep is the heart's abyss; therein may reach
Tremendous meanings without tongue or speech;
Its inmost tendencies, Tertullian saw,
Contain the ground-plan of the Christian law.
Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives,
Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives
Among us, men who walk within the fire
Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.
Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:
Distracted men that sow their hopes in sand
Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense
Of questioning, they do not know from whence.
Prayer has an influence we cannot mark,
It works unseen like radium in the dark.
And next to prayer, the outward works of grace:
Humility that takes the lower place,
Serene content that does not ask for more,
And simple joy, the treasure of the poor,
And active charity that knocks on any door.
It's easy said—I wish my words might chime
With fitting deeds as easily as they rhyme.
Yet somehow, between prayer and common sense,
Hearts may be touched, and lives have influence.
And when the heart is once disposed to see,
Then reason can unlock faith's treasury.
To rapt astonishment is then displayed
A cosmic map Mercator never made.
Scan it who will, this map, with faithless eyes,
It will not yield to him its mysteries.
Not his to trace, intently though he pore,
A land and sea route to that orient shore
The coast of cherubim; nor mark the strait
That narrows to a dim palm-columned gate.
In vain the sprightly unicorn shall prance
And dolphins crowned lead on the watery dance;
He shall not see Leviathan hunt the deep,
Nor Jacob's Ladder rise from stony sleep;
For him the serpent is not lifted up,
Nor Mystery poured red into the Cup;
He hears no rumour of the cosmic wars,
Nor heeds the crash of Pharaonic cars.
To him the glowing colours will seem pale,
The legend doubtful and of no avail.
In new dimensions is the sailing art
Skilled in the secrets of this ancient chart,
Where greatest may be least, all signs reversed,
The straight way winding, and the last the first.
World undistorted, world unsimplified,
So long by me desired, so long denied!
Open, eyes of the heart, begin to see
The tranquil, vast, created mystery,
In all its courts of being laid awake,
Flooded with uncreated light for mercy's sake.
Thus I have written, hoping to be read
A little now, a little when I'm dead.
It's true, dear John, I envy other days
When poets had a public, and the bays
Were fresh and green on many a famous brow:
But there's good writing to be done even now.
For praise, the cordial word of some few score
Contents me, for I dare not hope for more.
And if, as other times and moods come on,
My verse must fall into oblivion,
I don't suppose I'll care when I am gone.

Collected Poems 1936-1970

Last updated January 14, 2019