“September 1, 1939” is one of W. H. Auden’s most famous and oft-quoted poems. Its images of futility and despair in the face of violence, of the inevitable destruction and sacrifice of yet another war have such a universal immediacy that they’ve been revived time and time again, whenever sudden bloodshed rears its head. Perhaps the most quoted line of all is the one that closes the poem’s penultimate stanza: “We must love one another or die.”
Only, there’s one minor problem. During his life, Auden rewrote and then renounced the text in question, barring it from future anthologies and publications and distancing himself as much as possible from its creation. As the poet wrote in the 1965 preface to his Collected Poems, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.” And what did he mean by that? “A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained,” he explains. “Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues.” And that famous line? The worst offender of the lot. A line, in Auden’s estimation, as false as it is falsely reassuring and self-congratulatory. (Auden first tried to alter it to “We must love one another and die” before altogether giving up on line and poem both.)
But are we bound by Auden’s own evaluation of his work, and are we somehow wrong if we seek out—and even dare to enjoy—words that he doesn’t believe in any longer? If he didn’t want to see the poem, should we turn from it as well? The question is an old one, long predating Auden’s famous revisions and recastings: The decision to unwrite, in a manner of speaking, certain moments of past work—and the subsequent split of popular opinion on the justifiability of that choice. When it comes to such arguments, who is right? Who is justified? Why does it matter—and what does it even matter, in the modern age where it’s no longer an easy thing for the past to simply disappear?