That eye-on-the-object look

W. H. Auden–another major poet who converted to Christianity–has written perceptively about vocation.  This is from his poem entitled “Sext,” part of his Horae Canonicae, poems on the canonical hours on Good Friday.  (It gets a little obscure towards the end, but he is referring to the medieval guilds, praying to the patrons of their particular crafts, each of which was thought of as a “mystery.”  The last stanza ties to the hour (“noon,” which is when “Sext” was prayed) and to the death of Christ.

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines

of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray insted to St Phocas,

St Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one’s patron is,

that one may be worthy of their mystery,
what a prodigious step to have taken.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still

wandering through forests without
a consonant to our names,

slaves of Dame Kind, lacking
all notion of a city

and, at this noon, for this death,
there would be no agents.

via theskelfs: SEXT – one of WH Auden’s Horae Canonicae.

HT:  Laura via Comment magazine

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.quietedwaters.com Josh

    What a beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing this one.

    “How beautiful it is,
    that eye-on-the-object look.”

    I am fascinated every time I meet someone who has mastered their profession, someone who has that eye-on-the-object look, no matter what their profession. There is far more beauty in one diligent plumber who finds value and joy in his work than in a dozen mindless professionals working for the paycheck.

  • http://www.quietedwaters.com Josh

    What a beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing this one.

    “How beautiful it is,
    that eye-on-the-object look.”

    I am fascinated every time I meet someone who has mastered their profession, someone who has that eye-on-the-object look, no matter what their profession. There is far more beauty in one diligent plumber who finds value and joy in his work than in a dozen mindless professionals working for the paycheck.

  • Tom Hering

    “To ignore the appetitive goddesses”

    Yes! I’ve gone eighteen hours straight without breakfast, lunch, or dinner when working on a painting.

  • Tom Hering

    “To ignore the appetitive goddesses”

    Yes! I’ve gone eighteen hours straight without breakfast, lunch, or dinner when working on a painting.

  • Dan Kempin

    I will volunteer for the dunce cap by asking for help in understanding the last line.

    A beautiful poem, though. It is beautiful because it captures that difficult to describe quality that we intuitively understand about the gift of vocation. I have often said that you can tell the tradesmen who are really good at their job, whether drywall, cement, painting, masonry, etc, because they make it look easy. You see them wield a trowel or lay out carpeting and you are tempted to say, “That’s easy. I bet I could do that.” Dare I even say that there is beauty in the “art” (latin: ars, meaning skill and knowledge of vocation as well as art) of the skilled tradesman. Find someone who fulfills the essence of this poem in their vocation, and I bet you would also enjoy watching them work.

  • Dan Kempin

    I will volunteer for the dunce cap by asking for help in understanding the last line.

    A beautiful poem, though. It is beautiful because it captures that difficult to describe quality that we intuitively understand about the gift of vocation. I have often said that you can tell the tradesmen who are really good at their job, whether drywall, cement, painting, masonry, etc, because they make it look easy. You see them wield a trowel or lay out carpeting and you are tempted to say, “That’s easy. I bet I could do that.” Dare I even say that there is beauty in the “art” (latin: ars, meaning skill and knowledge of vocation as well as art) of the skilled tradesman. Find someone who fulfills the essence of this poem in their vocation, and I bet you would also enjoy watching them work.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@3), Veith only posted the first of three sections, for what it’s worth — follow the link to The Skelf site for the rest of the poem. Not sure I understand the references to the Crucifixion any better myself, even with the added context.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@3), Veith only posted the first of three sections, for what it’s worth — follow the link to The Skelf site for the rest of the poem. Not sure I understand the references to the Crucifixion any better myself, even with the added context.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’ll gladly play the part of the fool if we can work this out, though crowd-sourcing poetry explications seems particularly unlikely to succeed.

    The first two sections follow the same arc, focusing on a particular part of the body as key to understanding the particular role of a segment of society (the eye of the worker, the mouth of the authority). The actions of these nameless many are lauded as being key to civilization, to having improved humanity’s lot. And then, jarringly, each section ends by connecting its segment of society to the Crucifixion.

    The third section ties these together in the crowd, focusing on both the eyes and the mouths in the crowd. And, it would seem, noting that the crowd was both the worker crucifying Jesus and the authority that ordered it. And Auden labels us all as members of this crowd:

    the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
    is the only thing all men can do.

    Only because of that can we say
    all men are our brothers

    He even notes that this crowd has taken people away from their work (section I) and their authority (section II) “to worship the Prince of this world”.

    In short, if I understand correctly (probably not), we are all guilty, we are all the reason Jesus died.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’ll gladly play the part of the fool if we can work this out, though crowd-sourcing poetry explications seems particularly unlikely to succeed.

    The first two sections follow the same arc, focusing on a particular part of the body as key to understanding the particular role of a segment of society (the eye of the worker, the mouth of the authority). The actions of these nameless many are lauded as being key to civilization, to having improved humanity’s lot. And then, jarringly, each section ends by connecting its segment of society to the Crucifixion.

    The third section ties these together in the crowd, focusing on both the eyes and the mouths in the crowd. And, it would seem, noting that the crowd was both the worker crucifying Jesus and the authority that ordered it. And Auden labels us all as members of this crowd:

    the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
    is the only thing all men can do.

    Only because of that can we say
    all men are our brothers

    He even notes that this crowd has taken people away from their work (section I) and their authority (section II) “to worship the Prince of this world”.

    In short, if I understand correctly (probably not), we are all guilty, we are all the reason Jesus died.

  • trotk

    I guess I am not sure what the confusion is about the last line. It is strange that he seems to praise those who pursue their vocations above their appetites, and yet then acknowledges that their vocations had a role in the death of Christ, but it doesn’t strike me as unclear.

    Ultimately, the line of argument is that vocations produced the trades that produced civilization and crucified Christ. I find the implication that there would have been no agents for the death of Christ if civilization had not been produced by vocations to be strange, but not unintelligible.

  • trotk

    I guess I am not sure what the confusion is about the last line. It is strange that he seems to praise those who pursue their vocations above their appetites, and yet then acknowledges that their vocations had a role in the death of Christ, but it doesn’t strike me as unclear.

    Ultimately, the line of argument is that vocations produced the trades that produced civilization and crucified Christ. I find the implication that there would have been no agents for the death of Christ if civilization had not been produced by vocations to be strange, but not unintelligible.

  • Rebecca W

    Hello Mr. Veith, I can find no other way to contact you except this way so I apologize up front for an administrative question.

    Did you disable your Twitter posts? Your new blog posts used to post via TWITTER and I miss it. It was a nice reminder to check your blog regularly.

    Any plans to reinstate?

  • Rebecca W

    Hello Mr. Veith, I can find no other way to contact you except this way so I apologize up front for an administrative question.

    Did you disable your Twitter posts? Your new blog posts used to post via TWITTER and I miss it. It was a nice reminder to check your blog regularly.

    Any plans to reinstate?

  • Dan Kempin

    Thanks, tODD, that was very helpful. I nominate you for presidency of the new Dead Poet’s Society. (If I occasionally call you, “O, Captain, My Captain,” at least you will know why.)

    Naturally drawn to our task; Naturally drawn to our role; Naturally drawn to a crowd. Drawn to the cross. I might even get that.

  • Dan Kempin

    Thanks, tODD, that was very helpful. I nominate you for presidency of the new Dead Poet’s Society. (If I occasionally call you, “O, Captain, My Captain,” at least you will know why.)

    Naturally drawn to our task; Naturally drawn to our role; Naturally drawn to a crowd. Drawn to the cross. I might even get that.

  • Dan Kempin

    Oh, and is there any television character who embodies this ideal of vocation better than “Columbo?”

  • Dan Kempin

    Oh, and is there any television character who embodies this ideal of vocation better than “Columbo?”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Rebecca, I don’t know. I’ll look into it. By asking Todd.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Rebecca, I don’t know. I’ll look into it. By asking Todd.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Looks like the Twitter announcements did get disabled in our recent spate of blog-tuning, Dr. Veith (@10) and Rebecca (@7). I’ve turned it back on.

    Now, Dr. Veith, was I anywhere near close in what I said? I have no sense for these things.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Looks like the Twitter announcements did get disabled in our recent spate of blog-tuning, Dr. Veith (@10) and Rebecca (@7). I’ve turned it back on.

    Now, Dr. Veith, was I anywhere near close in what I said? I have no sense for these things.

  • Rebecca W

    Thank YOU for checking the twitter settings. :)

  • Rebecca W

    Thank YOU for checking the twitter settings. :)


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