(This article originally appeared in the January, 2009 issue of the Maryland Bar Journal. I have omitted an introduction added by the Journal’s editorial staff because I didn’t write it and frankly I don’t like it).
On August 31, 1939, German operatives carried out a carefully orchestrated attack on a radio station in Gleiwitz, a German town near the Polish border. Wearing Polish military uniforms, they stormed the station, broadcast a brief anti-German message, and left behind them several dead prisoners masquerading as saboteurs. Several other similar, but less well-known, attacks were carried out simultaneously as part of a plan by Heinrich Himmler to simulate Polish aggression against Germany. One day later, the Germans condemned this Polish “offensive” and invaded.
At a little after four o’clock in the afternoon, the Luftwaffe began bombing the small Polish town of Wielun, a location of no industrial or military importance, destroying most of the city and killing 1,200 civilians. A few minutes later, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military installation in the Free City of Danzig. Two hundred fifty thousand heavily armed German troops advanced toward the Polish cities of Warsaw, Krakow and Lvov. The Poles fought courageously but were outnumbered and out-gunned.
On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Two weeks later, the Allies had done nothing and the Soviets entered eastern Poland. The Polish government evacuated and re-formed in exile, and the Polish ambassador to Moscow was informed that as far as Stalin was concerned, the Polish state had ceased to exist. Surrounded and starving, the military forces remaining in Poland surrendered on September 28, 1939, and a few days later German forces paraded through the streets of Warsaw. The systemic genocide of Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Socialists, and other dissidents began. Auschwitz was established about fifty miles south of Krakow only months after the German invasion. The world was plunged into war.
During this time, the poet W.H. Auden sat in a movie theater in a German part of Manhattan and watched a Nazi propaganda film of the Polish offensive. The audience cheered the images of Polish prisoners of war and screamed, “Kill them! Kill them!” Auden was horrified. The experience helped inspire Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” one of the best known modern poems (not least because it was often quoted during the aftermath of 9/11), and certainly one of Auden’s best known poems despite the fact that he later rejected it. He rejected it eventually because he came to believe that its assertion that love would conquer all was insincere. But the two poems that followed – “Law Like Love” and “The Hidden Law” – expressed Auden’s faith in an insuperable natural law which would remain constant, and which could be counted on, despite the failures of its human counterpart.
Auden was not a stranger to conflict. He had lived in Weimar Berlin in 1929. Although the city was then still a haven for the intelligentsia, only a few years before Hitler had proclaimed his desire to hang Jews from every lamppost. (Auden’s companion in Berlin, Christopher Isherwood, later wrote the book on which the musical Cabaret was based.) He travelled through Germany again in 1934 while Hitler was violently consolidating his power. In 1937, Auden went to Spain to write anti-Franco propaganda, and he and Isherwood toured China and published “Journey to a War,” a sort of travelogue about the Sino-Japanese War.
In 1938, perhaps prompted by what he had observed during his travels, Auden wrote his “Musee des Beaux Arts.” The poem begins with the painting “Fall of Icarus,” in which Icarus careens towards death while a ploughman serenely guides his horses, a shepherd watches over his sheep, and a ship sails off on business of its own. (Although in Auden’s time the painting was credited to Peter Breughel, most experts now consider that unlikely.)
Auden observed that human suffering occurs in isolation, while others go about their business:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
As war broke out, Auden might have been thinking about Icarus and his lonely, unattended death as he sat in a bar on Fifty-Second Street. Around him, he wrote in “September 1, 1939,” sat “dense commuters” who clung to “their average day” and their “euphoric dream,” ignoring the events unfolding in Europe. Auden, who had only a voice “to undo the folded lie,” railed against the law’s complacency in the face of suffering:
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.
It was a glorious, gorgeous poem composed in nursery rhyme-like iambs, a meter Auden often used when dealing with the most serious of subjects. And it was absolute tripe. Auden knew it. He tried re-working it on several occasions, in one draft changing the line “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die.” But its assertion that he, Auden, no matter how gifted a poet, could singlehandedly give voice to hope in the face of European tyranny was at best naive and at worst insulting and arrogant. Eventually he rejected the poem altogether. In a letter to Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison, he called it “the most dishonest poem” he had ever written.
Auden often followed up his excesses with masterpieces, though. (To be continued)