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Stephen J. Whitfield

A Poet Illumines the Pandemic

Stephen J. Whitfield

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In homage to Dr. Denis Mukwege

1A Poet Illumines the Pandemic

2          The title of W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” might seem to require that this poem be time-bound rather than timeless. He composed it at the end of what the first stanza calls “a low dishonest decade,” when the ambitions of two murderous versions of totalitarianism seemed to have advanced unimpeded. Whether stemming from Berlin or from Moscow, the “waves of anger and fear” were threatening to engulf democracies like France, like Auden’s native Britain, and perhaps even like the United States, where Auden had found refuge. The anti-Fascism that had once assigned hope to the Soviet Union had faltered with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which was signed only nine days before September 1, 1939; and the poet must have grasped that the invasion of Poland that began that day would be merely a prelude to German attacks toward the west. He therefore wondered how, from Luther forward, a “culture” had been “driven … mad,” in thrall to “a psychopathic god,” with “the enlightenment driven away.”

3          That is the immediate context of Auden’s poem, published in the New Republic a little later that autumn. “September 1, 1939” can be read as a reminder of how dangerous the consequences of political folly can be, how a string of failures to foresee the onset of systemic evil can result in remorseless, lethal horror. The denialism, the arrogance and the incompetence of democratic leadership – here I refer specifically to the callous forty-fifth President of the United States – echoes what Auden described as the “mismanagement and grief” that somehow “we must suffer … again,” “defenceless under the night.”

4          But what makes this poem so resonant and so pertinent is a line that Auden came to find so unsatisfactory that, in 1955, he changed it. The earlier line is: “We must love one another or die.” Perhaps, in 1939, he meant to claim that, against the mass death that aggressive war was about to unleash, only the acute sense of solidarity and common purpose might offer resistance. Perhaps he wanted to assert that only the most intimate and powerful of feelings – for one another – had to be enlisted, in order to scuttle “the euphoric dream” that no sacrifice would be required in the years ahead. Perhaps Auden was right, though of course courage, patriotism, technological advance and luck would be necessary to crush the Axis powers as well. He must have had other doubts of the truthfulness, of the merit of “September 1, 1939.” For example, my edition of the Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1958) omits this remarkable poem entirely. Whatever Auden’s reservations, however, the pandemic of 2020 can also serve as the backdrop to his decision to replace “or” with “and.” Much has rightly been made of the heroism of the physicians and nurses, the ambulance teams and the clergy, and so many others, who have acted so bravely and unselfishly in behalf of the stricken and the dying. The love of such heroes for other human beings commands awe. But part of what makes this plague so terrifying is the inadequacy of such love, is the superiority of pathogens to even the most determined efforts to limit the lethal threat that the coronavirus has posed. It has made love and death inseparable. “We must love one another and die” therefore records the poet’s recognition of our fragility, our helplessness as we acknowledge our mortality. Even as we mourn our losses during this planetary catastrophe, even as we grieve for the luckless victims of an unseen menace, solace can be taken from an appreciation of a poet’s deepened account of our condition.

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Stephen J. Whitfield, « A Poet Illumines the Pandemic »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Mélanges en hommage au Pr. Dr. Denis Mukwege, Contributeurs K à Z, mis en ligne le 23 juin 2020, consulté le 05 juillet 2022. URL :

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