September 1, 1939
The poem deliberately echoes the stanza form of W. B. Yeats's "Easter, 1916", another poem about an important historical event; like Yeats' poem, Auden's moves from a description of historical failures and frustrations to a possible transformation in the present or future.
Until the two final stanzas, the poem briefly describes the social and personal pathology that has brought about the outbreak of war: first the historical development of Germany "from Luther until now", next the internal conflicts in every individual person that correspond to the external conflicts of the war. Much of the language and content of the poem echoes that of C. G. Jung's Psychology and Religion (1938).
The final two stanzas shift radically in tone and content, turning to the truth that the poet can tell, "We must love one another or die," and to the presence in the world of "the Just" who exchange messages of hope. The poem ends with the hope that the poet, like "the Just", can "show an affirming flame" in the midst of the disaster.
History of the text
Auden wrote the poem in the first days of World War II while visiting the father of his lover Chester Kallman in New Jersey (according to a communication of Kallman to friends, see Edward Mendelson, Later Auden, p. 531). Dorothy Farnan, Kallman's father's second wife, in her biography Auden in Love (1984), wrote that it was written in the Dizzy Club, an alleged gay bar in New York City, as if the statement in the first two lines, "I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street," were literal fact and not conventional poetic fiction (she had not met Kallman or Auden at the time).
Even before printing the poem for the first time, Auden deleted two stanzas from the latter section, one of them proclaiming his faith in an inevitable "education of man" away from war and division. The two stanzas are printed in Edward Mendelson's Early Auden (1981).
Soon after writing the poem, Auden began to turn away from it, apparently because he found it flattering to himself and to his readers. When he reprinted the poem in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945) he omitted the famous stanza that ends "We must love one another or die." In 1957, he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, "Between you and me, I loathe that poem" (quoted in Edward Mendelson, Later Auden, p. 478). He resolved to omit it from his further collections, and it did not appear in his 1966 Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957.
In the mid-1950s Auden began to refuse permission to editors who asked to reprint the poem in anthologies. In 1955, he allowed Oscar Williams to include it complete in The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, but altered the most famous line to read "We must love one another and die." Later he allowed the poem to be reprinted only once, in a Penguin Books anthology Poetry of the Thirties (1964), with a note saying about this and four other early poems, "Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written."
Despite Auden's disapproval, the poem became famous and widely popular. E. M. Forster wrote, "Because he once wrote 'We must love one another or die' he can command me to follow him" (Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951).
A close echo of the line "We must love one another or die," spoken by Lyndon Johnson in a recording of one of his speeches, was used in the famous Johnson campaign commercial "Daisy" during the 1964 campaign. In the ad, the image of a young girl picks petals from a daisy, then is replaced by the image of a nuclear explosion, which serves as an apocalyptic backdrop to the audio of Johnson's speech. Johnson's version of the line, inserted into a speech by an unidentified speechwriter, was "We must love each other, or we must die."
In 2001, immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the poem was read (with many lines omitted) on National Public Radio and was widely circulated and discussed for its relevance to recent events.
- Authorized posting of the original text of the poem
- Auden on Bin Laden, by Eric McHenry (Slate.com)
- New York Times "Beliefs" column about the poem
- Sleepwalking toward Baghdad, by Gary Kimaya (Salon.com)