Auden on nature and history

My essay on the newest volume of W. H. Auden’s Collected Works is up at the Books & Culture website. Here’s an excerpt:

Auden was decades ahead of most other Christian intellectuals in his thinking about community, about Christendom, about the complexities of citizenship and public life for Christians in a post-Constantinian world; and few of those who have caught up with his interests have been able to match the nuances of his thought. As Mendelson shows us, in the period represented by this volume of prose, Auden came to believe that these difficult issues can only be seriously approached after one has made an elementary but vital distinction between nature and history. The uniqueness of human beings, in the created order, is that we live simultaneously in nature (the realm of involuntary and repetitive acts) and history (the realm in which we make choices, and experience and reflect upon the consequences of those choices). Other living things — plants and other animals — live in nature only; angels, perhaps, only in history. To have this double inheritance is our challenge, our pain, but also our glory. Thus, in one of his finest poems of the 1950s, Auden writes, "Woken at sun-up to hear / A cock pronouncing himself himself / Though all his sons had been castrated and eaten, / I was glad I could be unhappy" — because to be unhappy is to experience the dignity of history, the gift of understanding that what I feel is at least in part the result of acts (mine and those of other human beings) that were chosen, not mandated by instinct or tossed into the world by accident, what Thomas Hardy called "crass Casualty."