Carla Carlisle: Trying to believe that people will step back from war, elect an honest man

Even as the problems of the world grow greater, Carla Carlisle commits to being an 'affirming flame' of hope.

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 land of the earth…
— W.H. Auden 

You might remember those opening lines of September 1, 1939, the poem W. H. Auden wrote the day after Nazi Germany started the Second World War by invading Poland. Until the scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Matthew reads Stop All the Clocks at the funeral of his partner, Gareth, it was Auden’s best-known poem. He had just moved to New York with his then partner Christopher Isherwood.

For years, Auden was accused of leaving England to escape the trials of the war. The truth is that he was drawn to the greater personal freedom and vitality of America. He had watched in horror as the British establishment turned its face from the reality of Hitler’s ambition and he did not share the beliefs of many of his Oxford friends that Communism was a desirable alternative. Moreover, he had no faith in Europe’s ability to resist the rise of Fascism. ‘It has taken Hitler to show us that liberalism is not self-supporting,’ he wrote in a review of Reinhold Niebuhr’s book The Nature and Destiny of Man.

I tend to enter a new year in a mood the French call melancolie fertilizante. The great endeavour of Christmas is over and the meals of leftovers are like a reward for good behaviour. Early in the afternoon, I fill my glass with the last of the Château Suduiraut, put on Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and sit in front of the fire surrounded by the backlog of newspapers.

This year, the news is terrifying and heart-breaking. Ukraine, Israel, Gaza — I could go on. Somehow, between relentless grief and suffering, I remembered fragments of Auden’s poem. Half-lines echoed in my head as I went to my shelves for his collected poems, in search of what I reckon we all want: something that might speak to us from beyond where we are.

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In fact, September 1, 1939 is not in my green Faber edition, edited by Edward Mendelson and published in 1976, three years after the poet’s death. Nor does it appear in my red leather-bound American ‘Franklin’ volume, same editor, but with an added message from Auden’s fellow poet Stephen Spender. Then I remember: Auden came intensely to dislike the poem.

I began reading Auden almost half a century ago. I relish the orderly rhyme and prosody — I share with Robert Frost the belief that writing free verse is like ‘playing tennis without a net’ — but September, written when he was only 23, was unknown to me until after 9/11. It suddenly appeared everywhere. The poem, originally 11 stanzas of 11 lines each, provided the powerful resonance that a shaken world yearned for. What Auden rejected in his response to the invasion of Poland was the eighth stanza that ends with the famous lines:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone
We must love one another or die.

He declared that it was ‘dishonest’, even a ‘damned lie’, to say that ‘we must love one another or die’. Eighty-five years later, surrounded by the news of the world as one year ends and a new one begins, his prophecy feels closer than ever to the truth.

Of course, poets change their mind all the time. We only have Emily Dickenson’s poems because her beloved sister, Lavinia, bravely rejected her sister’s wish to burn them all.

A modern poem that has provided much solace to the forlorn is Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh. It begins:

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
From bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
Faces down the frost, green thrives; the crops don’t fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

And the line that is my daily prayer:

A people sometimes will step back from war,
Elect an honest man, decide they care…

Copyright is complicated. Google it if you don’t know the poem, although I regret to say that the author now disclaims it. Poets have a stern inner editor: Auden rejected ‘love one another or die’ as overly dramatic, too simplistic; Miss Pugh doesn’t trust the easy optimism of her best-known poem. Sometimes, they are too hard on themselves.

Although there is nothing in the news, history or poetry that gives us reason to believe that 2024 will be better than 2023, that tomorrow will be better than today, we have to enter the new year with hope. We need to believe that people will step back from war, elect an honest man, because we are pretty sure that we must love or die. We need the poets to put our hope into words.

Perhaps it is the last of the Sauternes. Perhaps it is Mahler’s Song of the Earth sung by Janet Baker, songs that begin with a rather alcoholic celebration of life and inspiration before reaching the leave-taking of the last movement, but as this new year begins I dwell on the line of September 1,1939 in which Auden defines his duty as a poet.

May I, composed like them,
Of Eros and of dust,Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I am not a poet, only a mere scribbler in the pages of Country Life, but I believe it is my duty — in keeping with the aims of this magazine for 127 years — to be an affirming flame. And to the readers who have made it to the end of this page, I vow to do my damnedest.

PS: Fortunately, Auden failed to consign the poem to oblivion and Mendelson included it in Selected Poems, concluding that September 1, 1939 is ‘memorable enough to survive all of Auden’s interference’.