W. H. Auden’s, “We must love one another or die.”

Yesterday’s post reflected on Philip Larkin‘s poem “An Arundel Tomb,” especially its haunting last line, “What will survive of us is love.” But I would be remiss to omit mentioning another of the great English language poets of the last century, W. H. Auden, who also wrote a poignant line about love, “We must love one another or die.”

Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939“—with its obvious reference to the beginning of World War II—begins like this:

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 odour of death
Offends the September night.

[And the poem originally climaxed as follows:]

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.

Auden famously turned against this final line. When the poem was reprinted in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), he omitted this final stanza. He later wrote that he loathed the poem. He resolved to exclude it from further collections, he refused to grant permission that it be reprinted, and he called the poem “trash which he is ashamed to have written.” He eventually allowed it to be included in a collection but only after altering the final line to read: “We must love one another and die.”

Clearly the original sentiment—we must love one another or die—suggests that love could save us from war or even conquer death by granting a kind of immortality. The revised version—we must love one another and die—expresses an existential sentiment. We can love but it makes no real difference. Life is ultimately tragedy.

I am not sure why Auden turned against the line so vehemently and publicly. Maybe he was embarrassed by its emotional earnestness. Like so many of the intellectuals I have known, he may have been ashamed of the public display of sentiment. Yet on its face the line as originally written is at least partly true. Unless we become more altruistic, we will destroy ourselves. But can we go further and say that love conquers death? Here we have no answers, we only have hope. As I said previously, the hope that traces of our love will reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that may one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us.

2 thoughts on “W. H. Auden’s, “We must love one another or die.”

  1. I do agree with the possibility of Wysten being embarassed by his own words, or because some of his peers gave him grief over them. This is ironically plausible.

    The dynamic that is labeled “hope” is wrung from us, clung to by us, verbally thrust outward as a battle cry….to be WITH one another on this planet, not needing or wanting the other to be like us, but that we SEE each other – HERE, and rightfully so. Isn’t that why we’re on the planet to begin with?

  2. After just reading on line Edward Mendelson’s wonderful essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Secret Auden” it seems to me like maybe Auden felt there was something sanctimonious about this poem, about the posture of the speaker. But it’s a poem that resonates so strongly with the present moment, including the line, “We must love one another or die”. To me”die” is used there in a spiritual sense, become dead to my life. It’s my love of other people that keeps me aware of the miraculousness of being alive. And that’s basically all I have, when, as in 1939 and now, the future looks bleak.

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