I discovered "The Sea and the Mirror" in the basement of the Harvard Book Store, unassumingly placed in a bare bookcase among volumes of used poetry. I bought it, thumbed through it, read it and read it again. I find myself coming back to it because it speaks to duality: the flesh versus the mind, and the anemic existence of one when isolated from the other.
The poem takes place at the end of The Tempest. Ariel, a spirit, interacts with the characters from Shakespeare's play during the first two chapters, which are written in Auden's elegant, lyrical verse. The third chapter is prose reminiscent of the style of Henry James, and is an extended monologue delivered by Caliban, a slave, "to the Audience." Ariel symbolizes Spirit, the Mirror; Caliban is the flesh, Nature, the Sea. The juxtaposition of Ariel and Caliban is one of the most intriguing aspects of the poem, as Auden fashions them as separate entities whose coexistence is necessary for the creation of Art (it is interesting that Auden spoke of his former lover, Chester Kallman, in this context, telling Christopher Isherwood that: "It's OK to say that Ariel is Chester, but Chester is also Caliban, 'das lebendigste', ie Ariel is Caliban seen in the mirror").
Auden has called this work his "Ars Poetica," a "Christian conception of art." It is written with an intelligent sensuality that lives up to that title. I found it enlightening as a reader, instructive as a writer and vexing as someone still searching for inner truth. I would highly recommend it if, like me, you enjoy being simultaneously enlightened, challenged and entertained.