[lit-ideas] Re: Further on "We must love one another or die"

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 29 Jun 2015 10:43:08 +0000 (UTC)

Though the H-D information is interesting there are two distinct issues (a) the
aptness of the poem's language (when considered simply as a poetic work) (b)
misuse or misappropriation of the poem's language by others (say for political

In the light of the above information, Auden's concerns re (a) predate by two
decades his concerns re (b) in 1964. So his concerns re (b) cannot explain his
prior concerns re (a); and though they may have reinforced his earlier
concerns, and while we might link (a) and (b) by saying that the inaptness of
poetic language may be part-measured by how it may be misused by others, there
is a lack of analysis in the above account - both in being clear about the
distinctness of issues (a) and (b), the different times these issues arose and
the complexities of their possible interconnectedness. For these reasons, the
above information remains unsatisfactory as an "explanation".

On Monday, 29 June 2015, 5:51, Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>

As Speranza would say, "my last post of the day"!

We previously speculated about why Auden changed the subject line and then
hated this poem so much that he deleted it from his collected works.  Davenport
Hines provides another opinion -- or perhaps the correct explanation.

On page 319 of Auden, Davenport-Hines writes, "Later that year [1964] there
was a repellent public episode which must have heightened his fear.  As early
as 1944 Auden had dropped from 'September 1, 1939' the stanza which included
his most famous line, 'We must love one another or die.'  He explained that the
line was a lie, for we must die anyway whether r not we love, which some of his
critics thought was frivolous.  'Perhaps they prefer literature to tell lies:
that way it frees itself from responsibility to the world of ethics, where lies
have real and painful consequences,' his executor Edward Mendelson reflected
later.  Now during the US presidential election of 1964, when the incumbent
Lyndon Johnson was publicly denouncing his opponent as a warmonger while
privately planning to obliterate Vietnam by bombing, Johnson's campaign ran a
television advertisement which caused such controversy that a still photograph
from it was used on the front cover of Time magazine.  The advertisement
featured 'a little girl counting the petals of a flower, then interrupted her
with a stern male voice counting down from ten to zero -- when the little girl
was abruptly replaced on the screen by a nuclear explosion.  This left viewers
rather shaken.  Before they recovered, they heard Johnson's voice intoning,
'These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God's children can live,
or go into the dark.  We must love each other or we must die".'  The dark, and
possibly the children, as well as Johnson's misquotation, echo Auden's poem.

"This was a shockingly offensive incident to which Auden never referred
directly, though the degradation of his ideas clearly rankled.   'One cannot
let one's name be associated with shits,' Auden wrote shortly afterwards to
Stella Musulin.  It was no wonder that after this Auden felt repelled by
'September 1, 1939', 'the most dishonest poem I have ever written', he told
Naomi Mitchison: 'I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that
again.' "

Davenport-Hines goes on to say that Auden spent a lot of time removing lines
from other poems that might be used for political purposes.


Other related posts: