Thursday, August 22, 2019

W.H. Auden: "Thou shalt not sit/ With statisticians nor commit/ A social science"

W.H. Auden wrote a poem delivered to Phi Beta Kappa graduates at Harvard University in 1946 called "Under Which Lyre." It contains a line often clipped and quoted, without context: "Thou shalt not sit/ With statisticians nor commit / A social science." The full poem is at the link, but here are the stanzas surrounding the line about committing a social science, which also speak to rebellious academics:
Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.
What is Auden up to here? Adam Kirsch offered a short and readable exegesis of the context in "
"A Poet's Warning: In a witty 1946 poem, W.H. Auden contrasted the way of "experts" with the Hermetic path of the trickster," published in Harvard magazine on the 50th anniversary of the poem in November/December 2007.

The poem is being delivered at the "Victory Commencement," the first graduation ceremony in Harvard Yard after the end of World War II. To give a sense of the occasion, honorary degrees were awarded to the chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. Kirsch writes: "The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the highest level: President James Bryant Conant had been one of those consulted when President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA."

The "lyres" in the title of the poem refer to a choice between two ways of looking at the world. As Kirsch writes:
This is the war between the two sensibilities, the two social and spiritual visions, that Auden names Apollo and Hermes. Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, becomes for Auden “pompous Apollo,” the patron saint of “official art.” Against him, Auden sets Hermes, the trickster god, protector of thieves and liars, who is “precocious” and undisciplined. Both of these gods can make a kind of music, but Auden asks the reader to decide “under which lyre” he will take his stand. The comedy of the poem, and its prescience, lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the presiding spirit of what he calls “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, the poet suggests, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts—of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too.
Auden was far too thoughtful a social commentator to go all-in for advocacy of Hermes, the trickster. But the poem offers a series of elegant jibes and gentle mockery of the pompous academic (and political) officialdom of the time.

Afterword: The tradition of a Phi Beta Kappa poem has continued at Harvard. Dan Chiasson wrote the 2019 poem, "The Math Campers," about students at a summer math camp to devise an equation so that the summer will never end.