Auden in history

Susannah Young Ah Gottlieb*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


One of the earliest pronouncements about historiography is also among the most famous: ‘Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars’ (Aristotle, 1451b: McKeon, p. 1464). In a review article from 1955, Auden does not so much dispute Aristotle’s apothegm as change the terms in which historiography is evaluated with respect to poetry on the one hand, and the sciences on the other: ‘The historical discipline is the most difficult of all, since it lacks the demonstrable certainty of the natural sciences and at the same time cannot enjoy the luxury of the arts which are frankly subjective’ (Prose III, p. 599). Written in 1955, this statement represents a summation of Auden’s decades-long reflection on the nature of history, the role of the poet in history, and the proper procedures for the historian. In reviews and poems of the period, Auden showed a renewed interest in the problem of responsible historiography. Assessing Camus’ idea of writerly engagement, which he finds dubious, and concerned with the legacy Orwell had left the Anglo-American intellectual community, Auden seeks to develop an idea of history that is free of ideological tendencies, but does not pretend to be neutral with respect to questions of justice. Auden is attracted not to the grand theories of Spengler and Toynbee, which had sparked widespread debate in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s, but to Cochrane, de Rougemont, and Rosenstock-Huessy, each of whom has similarly – albeit less well-known – grand theories of Western history. None of the historians who attract his attention, however, posits the kind of necessary chain of events common among, for example, both Marxist theoreticians and anti-Marxist proponents of political and economic ‘development’. Auden’s reflection on the difficulty of history is occasioned by the publication of the second volume of Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud, which he reviews under the title ‘The History of an Historian’ (Prose III, p. 596). This title might be surprising to those who associate Freud with either the scientist, who discovers laws of nature, or the writer, who reinvents myths. For Auden, however, Freud joins the company of those historians he admires because he is, like all good historians, caught in an intractable bind: he must discover laws that he knows are not laws of the kind that scientists discover or legislators make.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationW. H. Auden in Context
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781139018180
ISBN (Print)9780521196574
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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