As I mention in my review of Ridley Scott’s new War on Terror thriller “Body of Lies,” the movie opens with these lines from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
You can read the whole poem here; if you do, you can see why Auden’s lines appealed to literary types in the aftermath of 9/11. One pair of lines in particular is striking: “The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night,” a chillingly prescient image for an atrocity not yet imaginable. Writing on Slate just nine days after 9/11, Eric McHenry noted:
“Last Wednesday I e-mailed W.H. Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939‘ to members of my family. Two days later a friend e-mailed it to me, having received it from another friend who was circulating it. On Saturday my mother told me that Scott Simon had read portions of it on NPR. And on Monday my wife, a prep school teacher, saw it lying on the faculty photocopy machine”
When Auden wrote his words, he was angry at the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, thinking they excused (or at least explained) Nazi aggression towards Poland and the rest of Europe. As Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College professor who wrote a great (subscriber-only) piece in Books and Culture on Auden’s relationship with “September 1, 1939,” explained to me in an email, the poet’s view would evolve over the years.
“In the poem he said that ‘Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return’ — essentially claiming that the Germans were doing bad things in 1939 because of the manifestly unjust Treaty of Versailles in 1919. But later he came to believe that the evil enacted by the Nazis was far out of proportion to any merely sociological explanation. At that point he saw his earlier explanation as frivolous.”
That wasn’t the only line from the poem to undergo revision in later collections:
“He also came to hate the most famous line in the poem: ‘We must love one another or die.’ Editing his poems a few years later he changed it to ‘We must love one another AND die,’ but then he cut the poem out of his collection altogether. That line especially started to sound to him like cloudy romanticism: he called it ‘a lie.’”
Auden’s later revisions have done little to dissuade liberals from their earlier interpretations of the work; as Gary Kamiya wrote in Salon during the lead up to the Iraq War, “Was Auden right to repudiate his poem? There is no single answer. But the fact that it still speaks to people indicates that he may not have been.”
I’ll let the poet’s revisions speak for themselves, but I do wonder if Mr. Scott was aware of Auden’s later pangs of regret for excusing the inexcusable. Will Mr. Scott one day feel the same way?