|Chapter 2:||The Quest Perilous|
Implicit in both these poems is the suggestion that Auden had himself long been engaged in a Quest Perilous (literally, as a man, and figuratively, as a poet) and so could speak for its necessity and of its rewards. At the same time, he speaks in the poem as one well aware of the danger inherent in such a venture and does not minimize the scale of sacrifice nor the degree of discipline the quest requires.
In “Epistle to a Godson,” Auden identifies the major evil as anarchy (chaos, havoc, confusion, mess). We find the idea appearing repeatedly in Auden's prose writings4: politically, anarchy is the product of lawlessness and the progenitor of nightmare, horror, and unhappiness; poetically, it is the product of the poet's self-indulgence and the progenitor of bad verse. Politically, the facile and exaggerated answer to anarchy is, of course, tyranny. It can cure the problem of disorder; but—as Auden well knew—it cannot (or seldom cares to) eliminate nightmare, horror, and unhappiness. Poetically, the facile answer to the threat of anarchy is to use tried and true, established verse forms, as Auden had always done; but the great danger to cerebral and vibrant poets like himself is that at times those forms can prove as tyrannical and corrupting as totalitarian governments are in the political world. Nor are anarchy and tyranny Auden's only targets in this regard. Liberalism, whether political or artistic, because it endorses certain sorts of insubordination, is often—Auden believed—merely anarchy in a seductive, new guise: the legacy of nineteenth-century liberalism and its laissez-faire policies were, in the late twentieth century, at the bottom of the epoch's worst spiritual troubles. But Auden was not so naïve as to attack liberalism head on.
Often, over the years, Auden tried to explain why liberalism fails to provide answers to the threat of anarchy (whether political, spiritual, or artistic) which emancipation “from the traditional beliefs of a closed society” always creates. The modern problem is the individual “lost soul,” Auden believed, “and liberalism is at a loss to know how to handle him (or her), for the only thing liberalism knows to offer is more freedom, and it is precisely freedom in the sense of lack of necessity that is his trouble.”5