If the stature of a poet is measured by how well his words stick in the reader’s mind and refurbish our language, then W. H. Auden is one of the dominant English voices of the twentieth century. It is ironic that he came to “loathe” (his word) some of his best-remembered work. The most notorious example is “September 1, 1939.” First, he erased the entire stanza ending with the famous line, “We must love one another or die.” Then, he allowed its restoration, changing “or die” to “and die” on the grounds that we must die in any event. Finally, he scotched the whole poem, finding it “incurably dishonest.” Despite, or because of, its editorial vicissitudes, the poem has continued to attract readers. The British writer Ian Sansom recently published a quirky book, September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, marking its eightieth anniversary.
I have always found Auden’s difficulties with “or die” a bit contrived. From the Christian perspective toward which Auden was working in the early months of the war, the theologically serious idea of love conquering death is not dishonest. The preceding lines, “Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police,” convey a practical, secular message about the need for solidarity in time of trouble, which seems evidently true, not dishonest. Perhaps Lyndon Johnson’s intonation of Auden’s line as the culmination of the alarmist “Daisy” election commercial in 1964 made it odious to the author.
With hesitation, let me propose an explanation for the poet’s judgment of his work that goes beyond his own comments. The late thirties not only marked the period during which Auden rethought his religious and ethical positions. Those years were also the time when he came to question the role of the artist, and particularly the poet, as an agent of political advocacy.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” he wrote in his 1939 elegy on Yeats. Not long after, he added in another poem, “Art is not life and cannot be / A midwife to society.” He became disillusioned with Shelley’s Romantic notion of poets as “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” a role more accurately assigned, in Auden’s opinion, to the secret police. He distanced himself from the view that poets can safely seek to exert political influence, and he came to reject the view that they ought to do so, as artists. Auden expressed a persistent unease, then, and for the rest of his life, about the pretenses of artists to political leadership and expertise. This growing discomfort with poets cum political prophets owes something to the overheated rhetoric that stoked the fires of dictatorship (“the windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout”) and the verbal folly rampant in the “low dishonest decade” that preceded World War II. I suspect that Auden’s humility about the public function of art is of a piece with his return to Christianity, which made the artist’s urgent proclamations seem like ersatz prophecy.
Forswearing the mantle of unearned power and demagoguery need not entail, however, turning one’s back on the more modest ambition to exhibit a public voice. This seems especially fitting in times of crisis, to speak, as poets often have, on behalf of one’s fellow men who lack the words to do justice to their triumphs and defeats, their suffering and joy. Like the recently deceased Yeats, Auden often responds directly to the political events of the day. As did his Irish predecessor, he even gives poems titles referring to places and dates in the news. Yeats: “September 1913,” “Easter, 1916,” “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” Auden: “Spain” and (though the exact title went through interesting alterations) “September 1, 1939.”
So, in assessing and responding to Auden’s poem we are right to ask whether he successfully articulates the thoughts of the British or American public confronting the outbreak of war. Does he succeed in expressing the connection between war as a public event and the everyday matters that affect civilians who continue to be preoccupied with their private lives, as does the poet himself?
September 1, 1939” has frequently been compared with Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” which is about the Dublin insurrection. At this point in my reading of these two poems, I am more struck by the differences than by the similarities. At first blush, Auden seems more qualified to compose a political poem that speaks for the public. Wide and intelligent reading enabled him to deploy with facility a broad range of psychological theories and Marxist explanations then current among his readers. He made vigorous use of the Western intellectual tradition, including Kierkegaard, who influenced his development at the time. Auden was well-traveled. He had lived in Weimar Germany and spent time in the war zones of Spain and China. Yeats, by contrast, knew Ireland firsthand but lacked cosmopolitan experience, and from our perspective (and that of his own time) he was preoccupied with a bizarre personal mythology that is difficult for readers to decipher.
Despite the expectation that Auden’s voice will be more successfully public, or because of that expectation, which perhaps Auden felt too self-consciously, there is something detached about his performance in “September 1, 1939.” He begins, “I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street.” It is as if he functions as a clinical observer, surveying the anonymous strangers whose “faces along the bar / Cling to their average day.” From a biographical point of view, detachment is understandable. Seated in the bar, Auden himself, the solitary Englishman, is no less anonymous than the American customers he watches. England is now at war, while the poet is far away in New York City, the neutral metropolis “whose buildings grope the sky.”
The second, third, and fourth stanzas explain the coming of war, treating its arrival as confirmed by “accurate scholarship.” Auden gestures toward German history “from Luther until now”; he invokes the psychopathology of Nazism and the moral truism that “all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” He cites “Exiled Thucydides,” presumably in order to signal the corruption of rhetoric in a democracy, and caps the catalog of explanations by alluding to “imperialism’s face / And the international wrong.”
Auden’s eloquent diagnosis is consistent with his prose of the time, yet the phrasing could as easily be borrowed from a radio commentator or political pundit. To that extent, Auden’s words remain impersonal: His elegant trimeters, well-suited to long words like “Thucydides,” “mismanagement,” and “imperialism,” invite public declamation. Only after this poetic evocation of a formal discussion of the causes of the war does the poem move to the normal confused people “who have never been happy or good,” driven by the mad desire not for universal love, “but to be loved alone.”
For all of Auden’s intellectual heavy artillery, Yeats has the advantage of writing about people he knows: “I have met them at close of day / Coming with vivid faces / From counter or desk among grey / Eighteenth-century houses.” Some he refers to by name. About others, whose seriousness he doubted and whose mode of life he had deplored, he is astonished that they have resigned their part “in the casual comedy” of everyday life in order to undertake sacrificial action for the sake of the nation. There is little political pronouncement in Yeats’s “Easter, 1916.” Instead, the poet reflects on the Irish communal environment. He expresses the fear that “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” Yet the poet’s role is not to judge on history’s behalf. Who knows how long sacrifice will be required? His duty is but faithfully to commemorate the deeds of men, “To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child.”
Was Auden’s persistent unhappiness with his poem due less to his fussing over the controversial “or die” than to the realization that his brilliant, moving rhetoric does not, in the end, give the public a common voice? If so, this judgment would be consonant with the later Auden’s suspicion of the public poet whose verse “speaks out” on controversial events and his turn toward “the wry, sotto-voce, / Ironic and monochrome.” And this shift is a commentary, I submit, on what a contemporary poet, or at least a poet like Auden, can reasonably achieve in a society that is divided, lacking a shared set of ideas, or even a shared way of life.
Auden is a poet I have enjoyed greatly, and “September 1, 1939” is one of the first of his poems I came to appreciate. He has helped me see the limits of poetry, and by extension, the limits of public rhetoric. Some of us are preachers and teachers, editorialists, and others expected to give memorable, meaningful words to shared experiences. As a consequence, we are summoned (or feel summoned) to project our private faces in public places; we purport to express the thoughts of the community, without losing touch with our private lives and at the same time touching theirs.
Auden learned the pitfalls of this summons. It is tempting to misrepresent our inner lives and to strain for the stage effects that bring the crowd to its feet. As much as an audience craves powerful words and images, speakers and artists covet the power to produce them. Instead, it might be more honest to speak for ourselves and adopt a modest conversational tone. It might be a greater service to our listeners and readers as well.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.