Auden is commonly cited as the author of the sentence that he called “the conceit . . . of the social worker—‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know’” (Prose, vol. 2, p. 347; cf. variants on pp. 160, 180, and 424). He never claimed credit for it, however, and the real authorship remained unknown to students of his work until a letter by R. Meikle in the Spectator, 22 November 2002, traced the sentence to the English music-hall and radio comedian John Foster Hall (1867-1945), who called himself The Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth.
“Vivian Foster” made about ten recordings on the Columbia label between around 1915 and 1933 with such titles as “The Parson and the Collection,” “The Parson Talks About Marriage,” “The Parson's Christmas Address,” and “The Parson Pleads for Happiness.” (He recorded some of these twice, first using the old acoustical recording method, then the later electrical method.) The sentence that Auden quoted may be heard on his 1923 recording, “The Parson Addresses His Flock,” starting about two minutes and ten seconds into side 2. This 26-second audio extract (630KB, from the Dinosaur Discs CD described below) includes the familiar phrase.
A detailed biographical account of John Foster Hall, who the son of an Anglican vicar and began his career as a schoolmaster, appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph, 19 May 2003. One detail not noted in Hall’s account is that Foster performed in at least one film, This Week of Grace (directed by Maurice Elvey, 1933), in which he played the Vicar.
Foster's records were widely popular in Britain, and would have been heard by everyone who had even a slight familiarity with popular culture. But it is possible that Auden’s attention was called to the phrase in the early 1940s by his friends the theologians Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr. Ursula Niebuhr, an Anglican who had grown up in England and studied at Oxford, would have recognized Foster’s sentence as an exact representation of the way in which many real clergymen thought about their moral obligations. Reinhold Niebuhr could also have heard it during his visits to Britain, or from Ursula Niebuhr. Auden seems first to have quoted the phrase in a review of a biography of George Bernard Shaw in the Roman Catholic weekly The Commonweal, 23 October 1942, at a time when his friendship with the Niebuhrs was especially close.
A CD copy of all of Vivian Foster's recordings may be purchased from Windyridge CDs for £10 or $18 (plus postage outside the UK). Until the Windyridge CD became available, the best source for Vivian Foster recordings was Dinosaur Discs, who will prepare a CD of Foster's records on request; a Dinosaur Discs CD was the source of the sound clip on this page. (The Windyridge CD became available only after this page was first posted.)
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