Mundus et Infans
– W.H. Auden
Kicking his mother until she let go his soul
Has given him a healthy appetite: clearly, her role
In the New Order must be
To supply and deliver his raw materials free;
Should there be any shortage,
She will be held responsible; she also promises
To show him all such attentions as befit his age.
Having dictated peace,
With one fist clenched behind his head, heel drawn up to thigh,
The cocky little ogre dozes off, ready,
Though, to take on the rest
Of the world at the drop of a hat or the mildest
Nudge of the impossible.
Resolved, cost what it may, to seize supreme power and
Sworn to resist tyranny to the death with all
Forces at his command.
A pantheist not a solipsist, he co-operates
With a universe of large and noisy feeling-states
Without troubling to place
Them anywhere special, for, to his eyes, Funnyface
Or Elephant as yet
Mean nothing. His distinction between Me and Us
Is a matter of taste; his seasons are Dry and Wet;
He thinks as his mouth does.
Still his loud iniquity is still what only the
Greatest of saints become-someone who does not lie:
He because he cannot
Stop the vivid present to think, they by having got
Past reflection into
A passionate obedience in time. We have our Boy-
Meets-Girl era of mirrors and muddle to work through,
Without rest, without joy.
Therefore we love him because his judgements are so
Frankly subjective that his abuse carries no
Personal sting. We should
Never dare offer our helplessness as a good
Bargain, without at least
Promising to overcome a misfortune we blame
History or Banks or the Weather for: but this beast
Dares to exist without shame.
Let his praise our Creator with the top of his voice,
Then, and the motions of his bowels; let us rejoice
That he lets us hope, for
He may never become a fashionable or
However bad he may be, he has not yet gone mad;
Whoever we are now, we were no worse at his age;
So of course we ought to be glad
When he bawls the house down. Has he not a perfect right
To remind us at every moment how we quite
Rightly expect each other
To go upstairs or for a walk if we must cry over
Split milk, such as our wish
That, since, apparently, we shall never be above
Either or both, we had never learned to distinguish
Between hunger and love?
‘Mundus et Infans’ (1942), an occasional poem celebrating the birth of a son to friends, treats the issue in even more playful terms.
Within the poem’s jocular benevolence, praising the baby’s vitality while also calling it a ‘cocky little ogre’, is a similar understanding of life as networked. The role of the mother for the baby is described in terms that also apply to the human relationship with the earth: she supplies and delivers ‘his raw materials free’.
The poem sides with the human when it calls the baby a ‘pantheist’, compares him with the saints and eventually invokes judgements (applicable to humans and deities), only to conclude that what the baby can teach us is the need to distinguish between hunger and love – impulses which connect us to the natural world and those which supposedly distinguish us from it. Human existence straddles a space that is as much divide as bridge.
This poem explores the delights and natural selfishness of infancy, as well as the differences between such a hunger and true love. Auden touches on the child who kicks the mother in the womb, demands his milk for free, sleeps, and operates in a world where no distinctions are yet made between oneself and others. The advantage of this state is that an infant is completely honest (like the saints) and exists without shame. The infant’s very being (cries and bowel movements) praises God, the Creator. His demands remind us again and again that love is self-sacrificial, unlike infant hunger.