In my last post, I reflected on Philip Larkin‘s poem “An Arundel Tomb,” especially it’s haunting last line, “What will survive of us is love.” It reminded me of another great 20th century English poet, W. H. Auden, who also wrote a poignant line about love and death, “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 had this penultimate stanza:
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 stanzas final line, omitting it when the poem was reprinted in Collected Poems (1945). He later wrote that he loathed the poem, resolving to exclude it from further collections, refusing to grant permission that it be reprinted, and calling the poem “trash which he is ashamed to have written.” He eventually allowed the poem to be included in a collection, but only after altering the 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. The revised version—we must love one another and die—expresses an existential sentiment. We can love, but it makes no difference, for we all die. 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 or ashamed of such a public display of sentiment. Yet 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.
The hope that traces of our love will reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that will one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us.