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Radio review: Three Faces of W. H. Auden, and Come Closer Now

29 September 2023


The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams reflected on Auden as a religious poet, in Three Faces of W. H. Auden (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams reflected on Auden as a religious poet, in Three Faces of W. H. Auden (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week...

THE accounts have him, in his later years, slouching dishevelled into holy communion at Christ Church, Oxford, and then disappearing before he was forced to converse. That much we might expect of a great poet, but perhaps not of a great religious poet. But this is the claim made by the Rt Revd Lord Williams in the second episode of Three Faces of W. H. Auden (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week); and the former Archbishop, along with the presenter Michael Symmons Roberts, make a convincing case.

Auden was not a devotional poet, suspicious as he was of direct religious language; but much of his work is irradiated with a religious consciousness. Nor is he a poet of religious conviction, but of unknowingness. As in “Friday’s Child”: “All proofs or disproofs that we tender Of his existence are returned Unopened to the sender.” What Auden is convinced about is the reality of love, of agape: the force that, as described in “A Summer Night”, inspired his re-conversion to Christianity in 1933. It is the moment when he got “lucky”: the word that Auden uses as a stand-in for grace.

If the criterion for a programme’s success is that it encourages us to explore further, then this was a consummate success — although, if we now dash to pick up an anthology only to find ourselves bewildered, it is not for lack of warning. Nobody here pretended that Auden’s poetry was easy. It is, according to the Ven. Dr Rachel Mann, “infuriatingly simple and complex”. Nobody really understands “The Age of Anxiety”. One recalls the postscript to Benjamin Britten’s setting of “Hymn to St Cecilia”: “at sea”, which refers both to the composer’s physical situation — aboard ship bound for England from the United States — and perhaps also to his understanding of Auden’s arcane lyric.

BBC anniversaries are coming thick and fast. One is the centenary of BBC drama, a genre with a distinctly checkered history which cannot, however, fail to impress by its resilience, prolificity, and diversity. As Katie Hims — who has been writing the stuff since 1996 — reminds us, radio drama can do anything, anywhere, at any time. The Aristotelian Unities have no authority here; although one may occasionally wish, when listening to the BBC’s almost daily output of drama, that writers engaged with the less restrictive but more fundamental unities of cohe­sion, consist­ency, and comprehensibility.

Happily, Hims’s own Come Closer Now (Drama on 3, Sunday) — commissioned especially to mark the centenary — exhibited not only her characteristic flair for the genre, but an enthusiasm for its history which knitted together her 100-year-long narrative. The story of a family with secrets is a simple one, but it provides a vehicle for an account of changing production and listening habits, as well as the excuse for some piquant anecdotes. By the end, Hims had just about earned the right to an extended advert for BBC Sounds.

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