In Scenes of Nature and Signs of Men Tony Tanner claims that "the building of a house is an extension and an expansion of the self, an act by which the self possesses the environment otherwise dominated by nature." The description of a house as an "extension of the self", and as a place set apart from the domination of nature also applies to the way W.H.Auden conceives of a house. In the collection of poems published in About the House, Auden both draws an analogy between the house as a building and the building of the self. He represents the house as a human construct, which is like a haven for men against the siege of the outer world and mainly nature. In the poem "The Common Life", he says: "every home should be a fortress,/ equipped with all the very latest engines/ for keeping Nature at bay." It is, after all, "A providential shelter", built at the time of "the Great Cold" and it is a product of "our feel for somewhere fixed to come back to,/ A hole by occupation made to smell human" ("Down There").
In his article titled "Nature", Emerson claims that: ''Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it." He says: "The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house." Auden's approach to nature is very similar to that of Emerson. It does not resemble the idyllic realm of Wordsworth, where man finds God, truth, justice and light.
According to Auden, nature, when it is not inimical, is indifferent
to man. It is devoid of any real sense of truth and justice. He says in
"Postscript" to "The Cave of Making" that "Nature. consistent and august,/
Can t teach us what to write or do'',/ With Her the real is always true,/
And what is true is also just. " But the real in nature is neither benign
nor good. Therefore, the concepts - reality, truth, dust and ice - when
they refer to nature are not associated with morality and ethics, but with
sheer bestial power. In "The Common Life", nature is pictured as the "Dark
Lord" and it is because this "Dark Lord" is so indifferent - indeed unfriendly
- to man that Auden insists on the building of a house as a shelter for
him. In the poem ''Prologue: The Birth of Architecture" for example, Auden
explains that "regardless" of "what we can see from our windows", it is
important to build a house, a world, "a second nature'' for ourselves.
In another poem 'The Cave of Making", we are told that the "vast
background of natural life" must be ''shut off", and the house must turn
into a womb in which man will recreate himself, or rather his "self". Thus,
time and again Auden draws an analogy between the house as a building,
a human construct and the building of the self. Furthermore, in the course
of the poems, the house emerges as the spatial definition of not only the
individual but also of the universal man. It is marked with man's stamp.
The identity of the individual man is shaped by the repeated action of
going in and out of the house. And the different selves which are
highlighted at each turn, taken together, reflect roughly the entire human race.
In About The House, the house is always described with reference to the activities of the people who inhabit it. Auden devotes a poem to each of the rooms. At the centre people are busy with their daily occupations, fetching something from the cellar, storing unwanted objects in the attic, eating, taking a bath or conversing with their friends. Even in "The Cave of Making" - a poem where a study is described in some detail, with "the Olivetti portable,/ the dictionaries (the very best,/ money can buy), the heaps of paper", Auden is anxious to point out that "all is subordinate to a function", and therefore, has to be linked first to individual preferences and next to human activities. The rooms of a house are built and in turn its shape, and its inner space contributes to the making of the self. In "Thanksgiving For A Habitat", for example, we are told that we do not, indeed, desire a perfect impersonal form or self, one "that whatever/ he does or feels in the mood for /stocktaking, horseplay, worship, making love,/ he stays the same shape." Auden explains that "Although a fine figure is rare in either sex, others like it/ have existed before." Hence, for him, an imperfect personality is preferable over a perfect fixed one. The importance of uniqueness for man is also expressed in a number of poems. In "For Friends Only", for example, Auden assures his guests "that within the circle of our affection,/ Also you have no double."
The building of a house, isolating the self from the outer world, appears
as the first step towards achieving such singularity and privacy.
Auden says in "Thanksgiving For A Habitat", that everybody is "vulnerable,
easy to scare,/ and jealous of his privacy". Rooms of the house provide
man with more private space: "A bathroom", for instance, "has only an inside
lock/ belongs today to whoever/ is taking a bath" (''Encomium Bainei").
In the bathroom, one has to face and appraise oneself, for there, even
"widows/ orphans/ exiles may feel self-important". It is the place
where the "Average Ego/ finds its peace" as if "what was wrong has been
put right.'' In the bedroom, which Auden calls "The Cave of Nakedness",
people meet with their naked selves, their naked bodies and they feel forced
to look more and face themselves more directly in the mirrors. Going to
the bedroom is at the same time a ''switch from personage,/ with a state
number, a first and family name" and "to the naked Adam and Eve.'' In other
words, in the bedroom, man is stripped of his social robes and faces his
self. This is a place where people reflect on their lives. We read:
"When they look in their bedroom mirrors/ Fifty plus may be bored, but
seventeen are faced by/ a frowning failure, with no money, no mistress,/
no manner of his own, who never got to Italy,/ nor met a great one".
Similarly, the guest room forces us to speak "in the language of friendship"
("For Friends Only").
In the poem "Down There", we can see how a cellar helps to construct male identity as well as orienting the civilised adult self in how to face and cope with the bestial in him. We are told that "Encrust with years of clammy grime, the lair, maybe,/ of creepy-crawlies or a ghost, its festooned vault/ Is not for girls A father sends the younger boys to fetch something/ For mother from down there: ashamed to whimper, hearts pounding,/ They dare the dank steps, re-emerge with proud faces." The reader understands from these lines that as the young boy returns from the cellar with a proud face, he is initiated into society. This opportunity, which is denied to girls, resembles the journey of a male protagonist into the underworld, or the journeys of knights-to-be into wild forests, which are given as prerequisites to manhood in legends and romances respectively.
The poem that follows "Down There" has the title "Up There" and as expected, talks about the attic. In contrast to "Down There", discussing the significance of a cellar in the growing up of young boys, "Up There" is imbued with feminine activities and connotations. For Auden, "only women cling to/ items out of their past they have no use for, " and "Up there, under the eaves, in bulging boxes,/ Hats, veils, ribbons, galoshes, programmes, letters/ Wait unworshipped". Unlike the cellar, which is associated with fear of the unknown and the dark, the attic is a secure place. It is a place of recluse "for two excited sisters,/ Where when mother is bad, her rage can't reach them."
Finally, this association between house and man reaches a point where the distinctions between the two appear to fade away and body, self and house merge into one. In the postscript to "The Birth of Architecture'', we read: "Some thirty inches from my nose/ The frontier of my Person goes/ And all the unfulfilled air between/ Is private pagus or demesne". Here we have the body described in terms of a house, with the area measuring up to thirty inches around it being presented as private property. The term "frontier", when it refers to the body, connotes the nose, which in fact is the front part of the body. Yet when it is given together with "demesne" or land, demesne refers to the private land, the garden, in front of the house. The fact that this area is private, when "untilled", points to the necessity of linking privacy with seclusion. The house and the self do not like to be disturbed and they most disturbed and they are most themselves when strangers do not trespass on their private space. In the rest of the poem, the self's insistence on privacy is expressed even more clearly: "Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes/ I beckon you to fraternise,/ Beware of rudely crossing it:/ I have no gun, but I can spit."
The analogy between a human body and a house is, of course, not original to Auden. It dates all the way back to early Christian times. In Confessions St. Augustine says, "My soul is like a house, small for you to enter but I pray you to enlarge it. It is in ruins but I ask you to remake it." Chaucer, in "Melibee's Tale" again likens the body to a house with the five senses as its entrances. According to Thomas Docherty, in Spenser's Faerie Queene when Guven is said to be admitted into the House of Alma, the poet links the house of Alma with her body by way of allegory. Since the analogy of the house and the body is such an established one, it is to be expected that the history of the house should also be made to parallel the history of mankind.
Auden was well-read in archaeology and anthropology and we frequently find this knowledge about the history of architecture and man's social and domestic life, to be given side by side with present day issues on architecture. For example, in the poem about the bathroom, we not only learn how man secures his privacy as he locks the external world out of that private place, but we are also informed of a history of bath-taking habits back to the Roman times. There, we understand that "Shakespeare probably stank/ Le Grand/ Monarch certainly did"; that for "St. Anthony and his wild brethren", "ablutions were tabu"; that Romans were "bath addicts/ amphitheatre fans". The poem "Tonight at Seven Thirty" links conventional forms of hospitality with the eating habits of man through time. Even thousands of years ago, "before the last Glaciation" when man was only a "supereragatory beast", he offered "mammoth-marrow" to his guests. Auden explains that "the Law of the Hearth is unchanged" still and today, "The right of a guest/ to standing and foster is as old/ as the ban on incest." In short, according to Auden, the basic social and domestic rituals have been carried out within the protective and private confines of the house throughout history. It is in the house that the private and the social meet, that the unique self performs activities similar to those of the archetypal Man.
In "The Birth of Architecture", the poet explains that the builders of many a famous structure have long been forgotten and these constructions are seen to be worked "by the same Old Man under different names". This Old Man, obviously, stands for mankind with a capital 'M'. For Auden, over the years, man has changed, but that he has improved for the better is questionable, for he still retains his natural, primeval violence. In the poem "In and Out", the poet tells us that we have "come pretty far, but who dare say/ If far be forward or astray,/ Or what we still might do in the way/ Of patient building, impatient crime,/ Given the sunlight, salt and time." In other words, man may celebrate his self-development through ages in "warm and windowed quarters upstairs" but there will always be a cellar beneath the house to remind us that "Caves water- scooped from limestone were our first dwellings" (''Down There''). Furthermore, private violence may always give way to public assault and injury. This happened many times in history: "More than ever life out there is goodly and miraculous, lovable,/ but we shan't, not after Stalin and Hitler, / trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively, all is possible" ("The Cave of Making"). In other words, especially in an age that has experienced the catastrophe of World War II, the house is like a shell for man against the violence and danger outside. Walls provide security and peace for the self to construct itself and to become human. On the other hand complete retreat into the house is not desirable. The house should not be over-possessive or bewitching. What is required for man's protection and growth is not ''a windowless grave, but a place/ I may both go in and out of". Sometimes, for example as in the poem "Thanksgiving for a Habitat", one's privacy is intruded upon. On such occasions, it is good to have the freedom to go out of the house, so as ''not to be at home to those I'm not at home with''. Furthermore, leaving the house makes man appreciate the return to it as an occasion to look forward to. Again, in ''For Friends Only'', we read about the joy of a reunion: "Distance and duties divide us", but "absence will not seem an evil/ if it makes our re-meeting/ A real occasion." Re-meeting takes place in the house that becomes a symbol for victory over space and time; a place where private emotions are encouraged to flourish. That is why Auden sets the guest room apart "As a shrine to friendship" ("For Friends Only") and we are told that a "common world" is created in the living room between "thou and I".
All his life, Auden sought for "the Good Place" where friendship and
love reigned. He travelled expensively, visited and lived in Denmark,
Germany, Belgium, Iceland, Spain and China, before settling finally in
the United States in 1939. He tells of some of his experiences abroad
in the second part of About The House, which carries the heading "In and
Out". What this sense of continuous displacement teaches him, however
- is that all journeys take you back home - "Where luck and instinct originally
brought you" and nothing has changed in your "love, ideas, or diet:/ Your
sojourn Elsewhere will remain a Wordless/ Hiatus in your voluble biography"
("A Change of Air"). As Alan Bold explains, Auden came to realise
that the good place is "no longer somewhere to be looked for but somewhere
to be made". What is to be made is home and it can only be made by
the individual man - the unique person carrying his personal stamp as well
as the stamp of the human race.
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