Sunday, February 05, 2012

Auden and Benda on Intellectual Betrayal?

The Treason of the Clerks?

I was reading W.H. Auden's 1941 poem "At the Grave of Henry James" early this morning and was struck by its final line, so I'm posting the last stanza here:
All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

Auden was Anglo-Catholic Anglican, close to Roman Catholicism in his beliefs, including belief in the saints' intercession between sinners and God, which clarifies his request that the long-deceased Henry James -- "Master of nuance and scruple" and thus a literary 'saint' -- pray for him since everyone is going to be judged for their lives, even those who have written well, for "there are many whose works / Are in better taste than their lives," concerning which Auden sums up in the final line, namely, that intercession be made "For the treason of all clerks."

On reading that last line, I was struck by the singular phrase, "the treason of all clerks," for it is actually not quite so unique, recalling the 1927 title of Julien Benda's La Trahison des Clercs. I wondered if Auden was alluding to Benda's book. Auden's point, though is somewhat at variance with Benda's, for Auden contrasts the excellence of a writer's writing with the flaws of the writer's life, whereas Benda criticizes writers for betrayal of their calling as writers by aligning themselves with any of various pseudo-intellectual fashions and serving those fashions rather than serving as those fashions' critics.

I soon found that I'm not even close to being the first to notice the allusion. The literary critic Lucy McDiarmid has written extensively on Auden's reference to Benda. I've not had time to read the long piece at that link, but I include it for readers who might have an interest.

Our time is also not without intellectual betrayal . . .

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At 8:29 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 9:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I looked but saw nothing on Auden or Benda.

Jeffery Hodges

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