“We must love one another or die.”

October 26, 2008 @ 8:52 pm | Filed under:

September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden

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.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

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.

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10 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Marsha says:

    Whoa, did you write that? I”m guessing, since it isn’t cited. I am going to print and re-read several times. Thanks!

  2. Karen Edmisten says:

    Wow. How beautiful and powerful. Thank you.

  3. Melissa Wiley says:


    Goodness no, it’s by W. H. Auden. I read your comment on my iPod and went flying to the computer in a panic to make sure the citation was still there–I knew I’d included it b/c I remembered putting his name in ital, but suppose it fell off when I was tinkering w/ HTML? Horrors! But it’s there, at top. The name of the poem is “September 1, 1939” and it was first published in October of that year. Which makes it all the more powerful–that it was written almost 70 years ago and resonates so completely still today. Especially post 9/11, eh?

  4. Charlotte says:


  5. Beth says:

    The trappings of society have changed somewhat (technology, fashion and so on) but people haven’t, political machinations haven’t. There are a number of similarities, actually, betwixt the current era, and the late 30s ….

    A timely poem indeed, that you for posting it.

    I’ve always liked Auden, but I wonder what he was like to live with.

  6. Betsy Childs says:

    Actually, after Auden converted to Christianity, he changed this poem. Once he came to terms with the true sinfulness of the human heart, he no longer believed that loving one another could be our salvation. He tried to have this poem excluded from his collected works, but eventually compromised by changing the final line to “We must love one another and die.” You can read the full story here:http://www.ctlibrary.com/bc/2002/marapr/5.12.html.

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    But I don’t see anything in this poem that contradicts the tenets of Christianity. Christ’s command to us was “Love one another.” And I understand the difference he is articulating with the change from “or die” to “and die,” but “or die” works within Christian doctrine as well. In the end, lack of love is what leads to mortal sin.

  8. Betsy Childs says:

    I think it probably has more to do with what he knew he originally meant by the poem, especially the line “those to whom evil are done do evil in return.” In the thirties, many initially excused the Germans for their aggression because they had been so badly treated after the first war. Over the course of the war, however, Auden came to believe in the idea of Original Sin. He believed that even people who were not sinned against still are capable of all kinds of evil. This is another really interesting article about Auden from First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2225&var_recherche=auden. It isn’t that the poem itself is so much out of sync with Christian teaching, rather Auden’s worldview when he wrote it was humanistic.

  9. Melissa Wiley says:

    That’s so interesting, because I read original sin into “For the error bred in the bone/ Of each woman and each man/Craves what it cannot have…”

    Thanks for the links, Betsy.

  10. Jim Deslaurier says:

    Hey, does anyone else think Lady Gaga just wants a hug?