|Chapter 1:||Signposts: the Limitary in W. H. Auden's Imaginary|
concern underlying Auden's development as a person and as a poet. The concept of consecrated limitation had a powerful grip on his creative imagination. As a small child, he delighted in the self-imposed limits, the rules, of his games. They challenged his ingenuity. But his childhood preoccupation with the idea of limitation was more practical than theological—and virtually theological was what it ultimately became.
Auden's first poems allude repeatedly to the theme of containment, though in no very lucid manner. The reticent country god with the stone smile who dwells in “The Letter” (TEA 25), one of the obscure poems Auden wrote when he was barely twenty, the Lords of Limit he invoked five years later as “Forms which I saw once in a dream, / The stocky keepers of a wild estate” (in “The Watchers,” TEA 115), the two speakers in “The Witnesses” who warn us to “Be clean, be tidy, oil the lock, / Weed the garden, wind the clock” (Collected Poems 72) are all prototypes of the no-nonsense, guiding spirit Auden was later to invoke by the Roman name of Terminus. As Auden himself explained, the Roman god of limits and boundaries was a deity impressively austere but essentially benign to those who worshipped him properly. Versions of the god Terminus and of the Lords of Limit are familiar presences in Auden's poetic landscape from the beginning to the end of Auden's poetic career.
In Auden's early poems, the Lords of Limit are arbiters to whose “discipline the heart / Submits” when eternal havoc or internal confusion threatens. The staunch figure of the border sentry reminds the wary wanderer that certain boundaries are transgressed only at great risk. In the early 1930s, Auden wrote in a book review that “man is neither completely free nor a mere puppet. There is freedom of choice, but within limits.”2 Not to explore the alien territory leads to emotional atrophy and intellectual death, but to wander about blindly in it, to risk total disorientation, is equally perilous.
The grand mystery of “the quest perilous” had, for Auden, the attraction and permanence of an extraordinary vision. Perhaps he was thinking of that quest—and of the Lords of Limit that govern conscience, understanding, and human possibility—when he observed in midcareer that “it is not the poet's technique but his vision which decides the value of his work.” He explained that a poet's vision cannot be developed,