September 1, 1939: In memory of poet W.H. Auden
German troops take Polish civilians prisoner during their invasion of Poland in Sept. 1939. | AP

Homage to Clio, the title poem of W.H. Auden’s 1960 small book of light verse—the later, shorter poems—is where I found out about the ninth muse, the Muse of History. Without realizing it, he had been writing poems to her throughout his life.

Muse of the unique
Historical fact, defending with silence
Some world of your beholding, a silence
No explosion can conquer but a lover’s Yes
Has been known to fill. So few of the Big
Ever listen: that is why you have a great host
Of superfluous screams to care for….

Auden’s disillusionment with History’s “superfluous screams” had animated his work from the beginning—including the poem which transfigured his departure from England and arrival in New York. He arrived just in time to write about the  beginning of World War II.

Auden was the greatest English/American poet of the 20th century, born February 21, 1907, and died September 29, 1973. We are on the eve of an important day of his life—the 80th anniversary of his greatest poem, September 1, 1939. To give you an idea of why he mattered, and what his poetry meant to me, here is the poem I wrote some years back, “In Memory of W.H. Auden,” that begins with a reference to the Catholic Worker Dorothy Day:

With his nicotine-stained fingers/he looked like an unmade bed
His face more lined than a road map/on this wayward life he led
At Dorothy Day’s Hospitality House he looked like all those men;
Homeless, hungry and aching for some clothes, some food or a friend.

He said, “I read about your troubles, and I’d like to help if I can.
Here’s a check for two-fifty,” he pressed it into her hand.
She thanked him as she walked on down the street towards the court
Still two hundred and forty-seven dollars and 50 cents short.

Then she looked at the piece of paper and couldn’t believe her eyes:
Two hundred and fifty dollars, the judge was just as surprised.
The man who’d signed the check, who looked so downtrodden
Who paid her fine, said the New York Times, was the poet W.H. Auden.

Chorus: We must love one another or die
He lived it like he wrote it
That’s how Hospitality House
Was saved by a poet.

He married Thomas Mann’s daughter, though I guess you heard they were gay
But she asked him, and he said, “Delighted,” like he’d helped out Dorothy Day.
He gave her a British passport—got her out of the Third Reich,
It saved her life, she remained his wife, he told his gay friends to do the like.

We must love one another or die
He lived it like he wrote it
That’s how Erika Mann
Was saved by a poet.

He went to Spain in 1937, to drive an ambulance in the war.
His friends warned the Spanish Republic, he was the worst driver they ever saw.
So they sent him home to England, where he wrote a poem for the slain
He donated all of his royalties to Medical Aid for Spain.

We must love one another or die
He lived it like he wrote it
Who knows how many soldiers
Were saved by a poet?

Spain 1937 is the poem he wrote for Spain, and it ends with one of Auden’s classic lines,

History to the defeated
May say “Alas,” but cannot help nor pardon.

But as with a number of his famous poems, he wound up rejecting it from his collected poems, “in part for the following line: ‘The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.’” Auden had became a devout Christian, and could no longer condone murder, necessary or not.

Two years later he wrote his most famous poem, which turns 80 years old this week.

September 1, 1939, was the first day of World War II, and W.H. Auden wrote his immortal poem about it—almost too immortal, he later came to think, when he rejected it from his collected poems, on the grounds that it wasn’t true, however beautiful it may have seemed. “Truth and beauty” looked like a calling card when John Keats used it in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, but to Auden it was a prescription for disaster, not a recipe for poetry. One could have one or the other, but not both. The classic line from his poem is the much quoted “We must love one another or die”—until he realized to his dismay, “We are going to die anyway.”

“Nothing is beautiful,” he realized, “not even in poetry—that is not the case.” That is the aesthetic he lived by, and when he had to choose between a beautiful line and one that was true, he always came down on the side of truth, not beauty. American poet Louis Simpson had much the same attitude in a poem called “OK for Keats,” who “Should have known better” in equating beauty and truth, considering he had TB:

“Keats said that truth is beauty—I say just the opposite. When I see truth in front of me it has a terrible appearance.” Thus spake Mandelbaum, sitting on the bench. He was thin and somewhat sallow from his work at the Hospital for Joint Diseases—the hairs on his body glistening like fish scales, flat and wet. “Beauty was OK for Keats, but ever since Buchenwald and Auschwitz people have pictures in the back of their head—emaciated human beings, bodies stacked up like wood, photographs of rooms full of shoes and clothing arranged in piles. Not to mention the atom bomb, faces and bodies exposed to radiation. That is truth. Where is the beauty?” (Searching for the Ox, New York: William Morrow, 1976).

Auden’s poem begins before the Holocaust, but even here, he’s no fool for Keats:

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.

And ends here:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Read the entire poem here—Wystan Hugh Auden, September 1, 1939 (excerpt), first published in The New Republic, Oct. 18, 1939.

When I saw that Auden didn’t want his best-known line included in his collected poems—“We must love one another or die”—I thought, “Hells, bells, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.” So I put it in “In Memory of W.H. Auden,” inspired by his poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” which as it turns out had another section rejected by Auden, praising villainous poets who were “pardoned for writing well.”

“Nothing is beautiful—not even in poetry—that is not the case.” He didn’t just write that off the cuff: It justified the most agonizing decision about his own work that he must have made, to delete his most famous poem from his collected works, September 1, 1939.

“We must love one another or die.” That is the line Lyndon Johnson used to end his famous campaign ad from 1964, in the race against Barry Goldwater. The ad was about nuclear weapons and based on the premise that Goldwater’s “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” might even reach to the willingness to employ the Bomb, which had come up during the campaign. LBJ’s ad showed a young girl picking petals from a daisy (“1, 2, 3, 4, 5”) to be met by a deep male voice overlapping with the visual of a mushroom-shaped cloud in the foreground saying “5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Then Johnson’s own voice enters the script to utter Auden’s immortal line, “We must love one another or die.” The ad aired only once, but may have cost Goldwater the election, by raising the specter of nuclear war were he to be elected.

To Auden the issue was more personal: “We are going to die anyway,” he finally realized, and thus the line was indefensible in his own aesthetic. It could not be what ordinary minds believed it to be—beautiful—because it “was not the case.” All the major anthologies of modern poetry let it stand, and included Auden’s great poem about the beginning of World War II with the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, but Auden removed it from his own canon of Collected Poems. That is character. That is his homage to Clio.

“It’s curious that Auden felt embarrassed by this poem (he made Penguin include a note saying that it was ‘trash he was ashamed to have written’) and sought to suppress its inclusion in his later collected works,” said Scott Horton in Harper’s Magazine, April 2015. “Perhaps he was concerned about the simplicity and frankness of thought, the somewhat amateurish psychologizing. But the noble note on which the poem ends, its defiant affirmation of love and sympathy in a time of boiling hatred, merits reading, particularly when the troubles and burdens of the world threaten to crush us.”

In that same spirit, “Mandelbaum” continues with Louis Simpson’s unforgiving poem: “I couldn’t waste my time reading English. When I raised an objection they would tell me it was art so it didn’t have to make sense. It’s been a long time,” he said, “but I seem to recall—didn’t Keats have medical training? Didn’t he work in a hospital?” “He was a surgeon’s apprentice” “There you are. He ought to have known better.”

Like Mandelbaum, and Louis Simpson, Auden knew better.

Ross Altman presented this essay as the special guest at Uncle Ruthie’s Poetry Plus at Southern California Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle on August 29, 2019.


Ross Altman
Ross Altman

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton, belongs to Local 47 (AFM), heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, writes for .