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“We must love another or die”

The line - detested by its creator - has resonated for generations

Photo of 9-11 skyline in smoke

W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939”

It’s eerie how W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” written more than 80 years ago, dovetailed so precisely with the most traumatic event of recent times. After the events of September 11, 2001, the poem surged in popularity, often quoted in newspaper editorials, websites, emails, and church services. The poem’s relevancy is especially strange when you discover that the creator Auden abhorred the line that we relate to: “We must love one another or die.”

Auden felt like the line he had penned was cheesy. It was “loathsome,” “trashy,” and self-congratulatory, and he spent much of his life disowning the poem, even changing the wording slightly in later versions to read, “We must love one another AND die.”

But the original version keeps popping up, and whether Auden liked it or not, it resonates now as it did then.

Influenced by war and politics

W. H. Auden was born in England, studied at Christ Church, Oxford, and published a book of poems in 1930 with the help of T.S. Eliot. In 1939 at the beginning of World War II, Auden immigrated to the United States where he became a citizen. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his poetry collection, The Age of Anxiety.

Political conflicts, popular culture, and moral issues form the basis of Auden’s poems which he wrote in a variety of verse forms.

Auden’s “September 1, 1939” could have been titled “September 11th, 2001”

I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night. All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: 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.

Defenceless 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.

Eighty-one years after the poem was written, nineteen years September 11th, and hundreds of years into the future, millions of people — “beleaguered by the same negation and desperation” — hope that they “show an affirming flame,” throwing light into the darkness.

Candles in the night

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