Auden’s Love Poem for Humanity

Auden’s Love Poem for Humanity

The poet’s “September 1, 1939” saw the start of World War II and declared: “We must love one another or die.”


Seventy years ago today, the military might of Nazi Germany was thrown against the free state of Poland. Hitler’s planes, troops and tanks swept across the northern, southern and western borders of the nation that had through treaties allied itself with Great Britain, France and other European states that had grown increasingly wary of fascism’s territorial ambitions.

World War II had begun.

W.H. Auden, an Englishman who was of the left that had tried to raise the alarm about Hitler, Mussolini and their minions by speaking up for the Spanish loyalists in their fight against Franco, heard the news while sitting at the Dizzy Club in New York City.

Auden did what came naturally.

He began crafting a poem. And in it was perhaps the finest line of that or any war: “We must love one another or die.”

Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was a political poem, with its references to “Imperialism’s face/And the international wrong.”

But it was, as well, a love poem–very much a hymn to humanity and the ideal of a solidarity, both personal and universal, that might sustain us.

A decade later, after the fascists had been defeated at a cost too great for imagining even now, E.M. Forster wrote of Auden in his book Two Cheers for Democracy. “Because he one wrote ‘We must love one another or die’ he can command me to follow him,” observed Forster.

Forster was not alone. World War II was a war fought by soldiers who read poetry. The arsenal of democracy included textbooks with thin covers, and surveys of literature both classic and modern. As a child, I learned poetry first by reading the blue-covered manual my father had been issued as an 18-year-old volunteer.

Not all soldiers read Auden. But more than a few did, especially that line about loving one another or dying.

And so it is, on this anniversary of a war fought by men and women now in their 80s and 90s, that we recall a struggle not between countries but between ideologies–between those who chose “the strength of Collective Man” over the strongman, the “affirming flame” of solidarity over Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich,” love over hate.

And we recall it best now, as in that dark fall of 1939, with Auden as our guide:

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 odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

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.

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