Celebrating Auden's Timeless Message Poet W.H. Auden was born in England 100 years ago today. Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor, marks the occasion with a new collection, Selected Poems.
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Celebrating Auden's Timeless Message

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Celebrating Auden's Timeless Message

Celebrating Auden's Timeless Message

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The poet W.H. Auden was born in England 100 years ago today. He died an American citizen in 1973. The words that he wrote in response to the beginning of World War II resonated with Americans after 9/11.

NPR's Scott Simon read from one of Auden's poems days after the attacks. It's a selection from the poem "September 1st, 1939."

SCOTT SIMON: (Reading) "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 odor of death offends the September night."

SIEGEL: Scott Simon of NPR reading from Auden's "September 1st, 1939." Auden's literary executor, Edward Mendelson, says the poet wanted to have a conversation with readers. He believed that the weight of the universal was to be individual. But according to Mendelson, Auden grew to hate that particular poem.

EDWARD MENDELSON: I once asked him what he wanted done with the poem, what I should as his literary executor. And he thought for a moment and said I don't want it reprinted during my lifetime.

SIMON: (Reading) "All I have is a voice, to undue 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. No one exists alone. Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police. We must love one another or die."

MENDELSON: Auden actually started reworking this poem even before it was published. And two weeks before he sent it off to a magazine, he crossed off two stanzas. He had second thoughts about a lot of it, especially the line: We must love one another or die.

At that point, he had an idea which he later found repulsive, that love was an instinctual force like hunger or the desire to breath, and if you denied it, you would destroy yourself. Later on, he dropped that stanza - we must love one another or die - from a collected edition. He simply found the whole idea false. I think the thing that sealed Auden's feelings about this poem was that famous Daisy television commercial in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DAISY" TELEVISION AD)

Unidentified Child: Five, seven...

MENDELSON: It was part of Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign. It's the one where this unbelievably cute little girl was counting petals on a flower, and then a deep male voice starts counting down 10, nine, eight. And as he gets to zero, the little girl is replaced by a picture of a mushroom cloud, and you get Lyndon Johnson speaking in the words that Bill Moyers wrote for him in a speech saying, these are the stakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL CAMPAIGN)

LYNDON B: These are the stakes to make a world in which all of God's children can live are to go into the dark - we must either love each other, or we must die.

MENDELSON: Clearly, Moyers have been reading Auden's poem. I don't have any record of this, but it is immediately after this that Auden starts describing the poem as the most dishonest poem he's ever written.

BLOCK: Time will say nothing but I told you so. Time only knows the price we have to pay. If I could tell you, I would let you know. If we should weep when clowns put on their show, if we should stumble when musicians play, time will say nothing but I told you so.

MENDELSON: He's a large and imposing man with a very gentle, mild manner. He had, of course, those amazing wrinkles. So there was his extraordinarily lined face that seemed to have the wisdom of the ages. And Auden, I think - like any very great writer - is someone whom you don't have to translate into the present. You read him and he's addressing who you are at almost any period.

So I suppose my birthday wishes to Auden would be thanks for making so much of a conversation possible, and for leaving me with thoughts that have certainly made life easier to understand and possibly easier to enjoy.

SIEGEL: Edward Mendelson is W.H. Auden's literary executor, and he's the editor of the newly published collected poems by Auden. Today is the 100th anniversary of Auden's birth.

And you can learn about the Auden poem featured in the film, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" at npr.org.

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