The Macksey Journal


W.H. Auden’s collection of poems The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest presents the reader with dramatic monologues spoken by the characters of The Tempest in a myriad of poetic forms, such as Miranda’s villanelle and Caliban’s meandering prose poem. Though many critics use Caliban’s poem to argue that Auden believes poetry is an impotent aesthetic activity, this paper offers a reading of The Sea and the Mirror as a development of the moral understanding of poetry that ends in its affirmation. Reading the collection as a rejection of poetry on behalf of life flattens out the complexity of this nuanced work. In this development, the paper proposes three modes by which to understand the poems based on Kierkegaard’s realms of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the transcendent. In each of these three modes, the character speaking the monologue ascribes a certain moral status to poetry. Prospero, for example, sees poetry as exclusively aesthetic, ambivalent to or perhaps threatening to morality. In this paradigm, Caliban’s prose poem—the climax of the collection—does not deny the legitimacy of poetry, but rather affirms its transcendence and thus its relation to life. By reading the collection thus, the reader can appreciate the moral understanding presented by each character and progress from radical doubt to authentic reintegration of art in its relation to life.