WH Auden in the Tom Quadrangle at Christ Church College, Oxford
WH Auden in the Tom Quadrangle at Christ Church College, Oxford © Camera Press
Caroline Daniel
© Rosie Hallam

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Talking about Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) and crisis in the same breath often invites the response that no matter what poets may say, they, like the rest of us, will end up being judged by their actions. And that sometimes leads to the observation that in 1939, the year in which war broke out, WH Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood boarded a liner for the United States. Not surprisingly, this brought criticism – some of it intense. For some, Auden’s departure for America when Britain stood virtually alone against the Nazi menace remains unforgivable. My personal experience of writing or talking about Auden and what he has to say to us has surprisingly often been met by objections that he was, to put it bluntly, a coward. It seems that people are not prepared to forgive what they see as Auden’s failure to serve his country in its hour of need.

The facts, though, are not quite as simple as that. There is no evidence that Auden went to America because he wanted to run away from fascism. He left, aged 31, in January 1939, eight months before war broke out, at a time when many felt that the immediate prospect of war had been averted – this was not much more than three months after the Munich agreement. Moreover, Auden actively sought personal experience of European fascism, which he witnessed in Berlin as well as in Spain, where he volunteered to drive an ambulance in the civil war. In Spain he declined to stay well behind the lines, travelling to the front, where he took real risks. He also went to China to report on the war with Japan in the book he wrote with Isherwood, Journey to a War. When his hosts tried to prevent him from putting himself in danger, he said to Isherwood: “I can’t get shot. Nanny would never permit it.”

Those were not the actions of one who was burying his head in the sand. Nor is there the slightest evidence of personal cowardice in any of his other dealings with difficult situations or people – in fact, those who knew him spoke of his courage in defence of what he believed to be right. He went to the US for a variety of reasons – not because he was seeking to evade military service. Moreover, he did volunteer his services to the British authorities in the US at the outset of the war but was told that he was too old to be called back to Britain and, anyway, only qualified people were wanted. When the US entered the war, he was drafted but rejected on medical grounds (homosexuality was the problem, but his feet and his eyesight would have excluded him anyway). The only remaining grounds for criticism, then, would seem to be that he did not persist with his offers to the British authorities after he had initially been given the brush-off. One might argue that he should have persisted more publicly with offers to serve, but we should remember that he was not posturing as a politically engaged poet: he did not enjoy being promoted as such, and was disengaging from politics in favour of a more private, religious position.

Whatever view one might take of Auden’s behaviour during the war, it would be our loss if that were to mean we ignored what he had to say about political crisis. Had Auden been a hypocrite we might be justified in paying less attention to these opinions, but he was not a hypocrite at all – anything but. The poems that he wrote during the period in which he was more overtly political – when he was very much the darling of the left – were powerful and influential ones, but Auden came to feel that they were meretricious and very explicitly rejected them. This is an unusual thing for any writer to do, and it points to a high degree of honesty on his part. He felt that he did not mean what he said in some cases, and that the right thing in those circumstances was to upbraid himself for dishonesty and remove the poems from his personal canon. The poems that he disowned are also very striking and beautiful ones; happily they have not been completely expunged and can still be read.

One of them, “September 1, 1939”, of which more later, is, in fact, one of his most enduringly popular works and went viral – as we would now say – after the bringing down of the World Trade Center in that other dramatic September, in 2001. Traumatised New Yorkers emailed and faxed copies of the poem to one another, taking comfort in a poem that had been written to mark a crisis that had happened 60 years earlier. Auden’s words brought comfort and still seemed to mean something to people who were reeling from a savage attack that they did not fully comprehend.

WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood in 1938
WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood in 1938 © Corbis

Interestingly enough, a few years before this happened, another of his poems had suddenly caught the imagination of a wide public – the poem so movingly recited by the actor John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral. That poem, “Stop All the Clocks”, is about a private crisis – the loss of a lover – and for some reason it resonated with many thousands of people throughout the world, many of whom had never heard of Auden. Auden, it seems, still speaks to us as profoundly as he ever did even when almost three-quarters of a century separates us from the world he knew and the crises he faced. That fact, in my view, is ultimately weightier than any criticism of his remaining in the US during the war.

There is a proper wariness to be shown about comparing historical moments. We are not currently reliving the 1930s, and, even if extremist movements are making worrying gains in some parts of Europe, the contemporary world is very different from the world in which Auden wrote much of his poetry. Yet when we read Auden today it is impossible to escape the conclusion that what he has to say about certain key issues is both relevant and immediate. If people in New York could read those lines with such emotion as the dust settled over them, then we can still read them – and certain other of his poems – with the feeling that what he writes has some bearing on the crises or intractable conflicts that bedevil our world. Conflict and insecurity in the Crimea and in eastern Europe, along with the continuing confrontation between militant Islam and the west undoubtedly challenge our clear-sightedness and nerve. However reluctant Auden may have been to be drawn into politics, the fact remains that his work expresses profound truths about how those caught up in the machinations of factions and states might think about what is happening. Poets may not at a stroke change the course of events but they may provide enlightening commentary and may prompt those who actually do change things to reflect on their actions. Most of all, they may provide some comfort and some sense of value in a world that may seem frighteningly dangerous. If the west has something it feels is worth defending – tolerance, freedom of speech and so on – then it needs to remind itself of those values through art, including through poetry. Auden’s voice – an extremely humane one – does just that.

He also reminds us of the importance of kindness; as his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books, Auden was the author of numerous private acts of generosity. Mendelson told me that his article appears to have struck a chord with a surprisingly large number of people. “It seems that people want to hear about kindness,” he said. And that is true. A poet can do worse than to remind us that kindness to others may not only be the right thing to do, but the effective thing, too.

A number of Auden’s poems may be said to address crisis, but the one that speaks most directly to the subject is, of course, “September 1, 1939”. That poem begins with the utterly memorable lines: “I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street”. The poet is in a bar on the day that war erupts in Europe; around him are the faces of the others in the bar, each struggling, in his own way, with the demands of ordinary life; outside, the shining skyscrapers reach up into the “neutral air”, while elsewhere, where night has already fallen, hate stalks the darkness. The poem, which is exceptionally rich in meaning and allusion, addresses the issue of how an uneasy relationship is negotiated between the private and the public; of how unconventional love must live under the disapproving gaze of others; of how propaganda and lies may drown out the gentle voices of reason and love.

What exactly is he saying to us, and why have people seized on this poem in times of trouble? The poem can be read in more than one way, including as a coded musing on homosexuality, but that is not how most people who come to it afresh will read it. They are more likely to be struck by certain key messages, particularly by what it has to say on the importance of love. Auden addresses here the rise of Hitler and the awful distortion of German culture that has led to war. The crude rampaging of a dictator may stem, he says, from some old idea, some cultural or intellectual obsession: to understand what goes wrong we may have to trace the intellectual history of a delusion. But then he suddenly changes tack and comes up with these lines: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

What he meant here has been the subject of some academic debate but interpreted in one way, what these lines say is exactly right. Belittling people, shouting at them, punishing them harshly: these do not stop bad behaviour, do not stop hatred in its tracks. Love, by contrast, is the only way in which the inured heart will be healed. And that brings us to perhaps the best-known line in the poem, even if it is one that has been much criticised and debated: “We must love one another or die.” Auden disowned that line; yes, of course we shall die, even if we do love one another. And yet, even if its author refuted it, its power is undeniable, and, if it is taken as an inspiration for charity and understanding, then what is wrong with that?

What Auden would have us remember most of all is that in times of crisis we must remind ourselves of the poisonous effect of propaganda and inflammatory rhetoric on the part of both rabble-rousers and of the state. (That does not therefore mean pacifism or appeasement; love and understanding are not incompatible with firmness and preparedness.) He makes a similar point about the questionable objectives of the state in his 1939 poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”. There he said that the insights of psychoanalysis made it difficult for the proud still to be proud, or for an oppressive state to continue with its culture of exploitation. In other words, he reminded us to be free of popular sentiment, to see things as they really are, to make rational choices. That message is sometimes obscured in the menace of crisis; it is still there, though, in the poetry of WH Auden, as clear as it was when he wrote it, just as beautiful, just as moving, every bit as urgent.

Alexander McCall Smith is author of ‘What WH Auden Can Do For You’ (Princeton). He will be talking to the FT’s Jan Dalley at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Friday March 28. oxfordliteraryfestival.org

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