January 7, 2017
“September 1, 1939” is one of the most famous poems by W. H. Auden. He wrote the poem after learning the news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, published it a month later in The New Republic magazine, and reprinted it in his collection, Another Time, the following year.
Despite – or perhaps because of — rushing it into print, Auden appeared to dislike the poem almost as soon as it was published. As little as five years later, reprinting the poem in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), he cut the stanza with its most famous line, “We must love one another or die.”
“Between you and me, I loathe that poem,” he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, and resolved to keep it out of future collections of his work during his lifetime. He relented in 1955, allowing Oscar Williams to include it in his New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, but only with the proviso that the last line be edited to “We must love one another and die.”
Why did he hate this line – and the poem — so much? He claimed in a preface to the 1965 edition of his Collected Poems, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.”
In a Penguin anthology the previous year, the poem and four others were included along with a caveat: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”
What was it about the poem and, in particular, this line that Auden didn’t like? Was he embarrassed by its earnestness and sentiment, as some have suggested? Did he feel it was sappy and self-indulgent, as others would have it? Or was it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” as he put it?
And yet, the last line endures and the poem remains one of Auden’s most famous, surviving even today as one of the most eloquent pleas for empathy and peace in the face of totalitarianism. The poem even resurfaced as a touchstone for people in the wake of 9/11, as I have written elsewhere.
Here is my poem, “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden”:
“We must love one another or die,”
The poet instructs, though doesn’t believe it.
“We must love one another and die.”
Revised to inclusive and on another try,
Then repudiated the poem, banning it.
He who must love another or die.
“Ours is not to reason why,”
Another poet said with the soul of wit.
Ours is to love one another. We die.
Changing a word makes meaning fly
To the far reaches of our minds and sit.
Must we, really, love one another or die?
Can we exist without knowing why–
Knowledge straining at the bit–
Until we can only love each other and die?
When we live without love, we die.
At least, those of us who desire it.
We must love one another or die.
We must love one another and die.
–Scott Edward Anderson
April 5, 2011
The poet John R. Keene was tweeting about sestinas on Saturday under the Poetry Foundation’s @harriet_poetry moniker and I sent him one that I tried back in 1994. It started from an actual scene I witnessed at the time in my garden in Garrison, NY.
According to The Academy of American Poets, “The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction.”
The Academy description lists some tour de force sestinas, including Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” along with “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “Paysage Moralise” by W.H. Auden.
Here is my sestina, which pales in comparison like the flaking sloughed-off skin of the snake it describes:
In the yard by the barn was a snake
resting on a leaf-pile in the garden,
nearby his old shod skin
limp and lifeless under a noon-day sun.
Abandoned on the blades of grass,
like an untangled filament of memory.
The sight of him fired my memory,
which cast a shadow on the snake
(who now slithered away in the grass).
He lent a curious aspect to the garden–
aspect being its relation to the sun
–not unlike his relation to the skin.
He seemed to remember the skin.
(Do snakes have that much memory?)
Or was it a trick of the sun
that he mistook for a female snake?
When he made his way out of the garden,
I crept along quietly in the grass.
As I followed him there in the grass,
he stretched ever closer to the skin;
his path leading out of the garden,
as if tracing the line of a memory.
How strange, I thought, this snake,
disregarding the late summer sun.
Later, over-heated in afternoon sun,
I lay down to rest on the grass.
I watched again as the snake
tried to resuscitate his discarded skin,
perhaps to revive its dead memory
and lure it back home to the garden.
Cutting the lawn by the garden,
I must have been dizzy with sun,
or dozing in the haze of a memory.
Translucent flakes feathered the grass:
it was then I remembered the skin;
it was then I remembered the snake.
I sat by the garden dropping fresh-cut grass
onto my arm and its sun-baked skin,
clippings of memory snaking through my mind.
–Scott Edward Anderson