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The unacknowledged legislators of the world

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W.H. Auden hated Percy Bysshe Shelley’s apothegm that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” That phrase, he wrote, “describes the secret police, not the poets.” Having put his poetic talents in service of the political Left for most of the 1930s, he had come to believe that the “integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his social conscience, his political or religious convictions,” than by appeals to his wallet. That realization made him renounce those of his political poems — notably “September 1, 1939,” written to record the author’s thoughts and feelings on the occasion of the Nazi invasion of Poland, the outbreak of World War II — containing “false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities.” His political poems had, in a sense, made him a poetic legislator — or, more plainly, a propagandist.

What made Auden’s early poetry great, Philip Larkin commented, had everything to do with the looming crises of the interwar period. His inspiration, Larkin wrote, stemmed from “not only the age’s properties but its obsessions: feeling inferior to the working class, a sense that things needed a new impetus from somewhere, seeing out of the corner of an eye the rise of Fascism, the persecution of the Jews, the gathering dread of the next war that was half projected guilt about the last.” Indeed, many of Auden’s most memorable lines — “It is time for the destruction of error” — gave voice to his feeling that the “new impetus” that society needed would come from Marxist revolution. But his outlook changed in 1939 when he moved to America and rediscovered his Christian faith. Disillusioned with Marxism, he believed that his political poetry had been rhetorically effective but insincere and irresponsible.

Auden was more uncertain about his political commitments than he sounded. He masked his inward doubt with outward certitude. “Looking back,” he wrote, “it seems to me that the interest in Marx taken by myself and my friends … was more psychological than political; we were interested in Marx in the same way that we were interested in Freud, as a technique of unmasking middle-class ideology.” That was perhaps true, but if his interest in Marx was psychological, his interest in Freud was partly revolutionary. In his elegy for Freud, he praised the revolutionary potential of psychoanalysis. “No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit / in his technique of unsettlement foresaw / the fall of princes, the collapse of / their lucrative patterns of frustration”.

Like Karl Marx, Auden thought Russia too backward for socialism to succeed there. In “New Year Letter” (1940), he not only pitted Marx against his Soviet followers but likened Marxist dialectics to the devil’s techniques. Yet he praised Marx for his insight that “None shall receive unless they give; / All must cooperate to live.” The injunction to love one’s neighbor, in other words, was both moral and exigent. But the Marx he lauded had no Bolshevik steeliness. Rather, the ethical core of his teachings consisted in setting “universal, mutual need” before “colour, neighbourhood, creed.” It was Marx without radicalism — Marx reduced to OK values. Communist utopia, he now believed, could only be hoped for, not reached: “We hoped; we waited for the day / The State would with clean away, / Expecting Millennium / That theory promised us would come: / It didn’t.” This was one of the “clever hopes” he referred to in the opening stanza of “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

Another clever hope he gave up on was that history bent toward justice. In “Spain,” his tribute to the Spanish republicans fighting Franco, he greeted a bright future that fascist victory could retard but not prevent. By September 1939, however, his conviction wavered before the seemingly relentless march of fascism: “Progress is probable but not certain. The possibility can be increased, but only by conscious human action.” He hadn’t fully rejected historicism when he wrote “September 1,” but he had begun doubting. He erased a stanza that read, “To testify my faith / That reason’s roman path / And the trek of punishment / Lead both to a single goal.” It expressed his conviction that in the end, fascism could not win because History would intervene sooner or later. But shorn of Marxist teleology, he lost faith in History’s inevitable progress.

The penultimate stanza of “September 1” closes with the line: “We must love one another or die.” But it is false on every reading. One can live without love, and one can die with it. When Auden reread the line, he thought: “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” He changed it to “We must love one another and die.” But he wasn’t satisfied: “That didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realised, was infected with an incurable dishonesty and must be scrapped.” His readers, of course, haven’t let it be scrapped. Many have thought it overly pedantic of him to insist on strict truthfulness, especially since what is strictly untrue often has its own enigmatic beauty. But the preceding lines — “Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police” — make clear that love is an instinct that must be satisfied or else one perishes. That was what Auden rejected. Love, he had come to see, was not a primal need like hunger, but a mutually bestowed gift of forgiveness.

In the summer of 1933, Auden was struck by a “Vision of Agape” that taught him “what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself,” but the poem’s landscape is unceasingly bleak. “… The enlightenment driven away, / The habit-forming pain, / Mismanagements and grief: / We must suffer them all again.” Everyday life, with its music and company, can only shield us from seeing where we really are: “Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.” It is because the preceding grimness is unrelenting that the poem’s closing hopes feel empty.

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 of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden later called the point-of-light image “frivolous,” even with its softening “ironic.” He soon regretted the final line, too. In “New Year Letter,” he instead wrote, “The flares of desperation rise / From signalers who justly plead / Their cause is piteous indeed.” This was more in line with his emotions on the eve of war: He broke down crying in desperation.

Auden’s retreat from political poetry was not a rejection in principle of the genre. He continued to believe in the importance of public poetry. He penned a poem condemning the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, wherein he likened the Soviet forces, with their bureaucratized language, to a wooden-tongued ogre stalking a subjugated plain. But he retreated from politics, calling himself no more politically informed than the average New York Times reader. He no longer wanted to speak for anyone but himself. Poetry, he believed, should not be propaganda — it should not lead its readers to believe that they’re on the right side of history.

The chief reason Auden excised “September 1” was not because he thought its politics were wrong but because he thought it exercised too much control over its readers. “Orpheus,” he wrote, “who moved stones is the archetype, not of the poet, but of Goebbels.” E.M. Forster meant it as praise when he said, “Because he once wrote, ‘We must love one another or die,’ he can command me to follow him.” But that was precisely why Auden loathed the poem.

Gustav Jonsson is a Swedish freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.

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