In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote that, when the Irish poet died in 1939, “he became his admirers.” Becoming his admirers is, however, only the first stage of a poet’s posthumous existence. Once all readers who can remember him as a living being are gone, the poet enters a new stage by becoming his scholars. As the twentieth century recedes into history, its great poets are undergoing this transformation one by one. The 14-volume edition of Yeats’s Collected Works, edited by Richard Finneran, began to appear in 1989, 50 years after Yeats’s death. The definitive edition of T. S. Eliot’s poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, was published in two volumes in 2015—again, 50 years after the poet’s death.

Auden died in 1973, and now, keeping to this schedule, his Complete Poems have arrived in two thick volumes, concluding the ten-volume edition of Auden’s Complete Works, edited by Edward Mendelson. Compared with Ricks, who annotates every allusion that Eliot ever made (and some that he did not make), Mendelson has a more traditional understanding of the editor’s role. Rather than interpreting Auden, he gives us the definitive text of each poem that Auden wrote, along with its history of revision and publication.

The effort and expertise required are self-evident. By the standards of twentieth-century poetry, Auden wrote an enormous amount, publishing some 15 collections from his first, Poems, in 1930, to his last, Thank You, Fog, which came out posthumously in 1974. The “some” is necessary because several of Auden’s books were mixtures of verse and prose, or plays in verse, or collaborations with other writers—notably, Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice. Then there are the poems that Auden published for the first time in various collected and selected volumes; and the ones published in magazines but not included in books; and those sent only to friends, or started but never finished. Another complication is that the U.K. and U.S. editions of his books were often different, sometimes even bearing different titles. And the poet was an inveterate reviser, never hesitating to change his published words if he thought it was called for.

Even his most famous poems weren’t immune. In 1937, Auden published the short poem “Spain” as a pamphlet, with proceeds to benefit the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, an international group aiding the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Written just after the poet’s brief visit to the war-torn country, “Spain” became one of the emblematic poems of the decade. Like most young intellectuals at the time, Auden saw the Republican struggle against Franco’s Loyalists as Europe’s last chance to save its civilization from fascist barbarism. “I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain,” the poem declares, challenging the reader to assume moral responsibility for the war, with all its horrors: “Today the inevitable increase in the chances of death; / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder.”

That, at least, is what it says on page 372 of volume 1 of the Complete Poems, reflecting the revisions that Auden made when he collected “Spain” in his 1940 book Another Time. In the notes on page 770, Mendelson reproduces the full original text of the poem issued in 1937, in which those lines read: “To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” The poem’s fame rested partly on this unflinching endorsement of killing one’s political enemies, which could have come from the pen of a hard-bitten Communist like Bertolt Brecht.

But while Auden was widely seen at the time as a leader of the literary Left, he was never a Communist, and he soon regretted the implication of those lines. George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and took a bullet in the neck, was infuriated by “Spain,” writing that Auden’s line “could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. . . . Mr. Auden’s amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.” The way Auden rewrote the lines, calling death “inevitable” rather than “deliberate” and refusing to say that murder is “necessary,” suggests that he took this criticism to heart.

In Another Time, Auden placed “Spain” in a section headed “Occasional Poems.” Poems written in honor of, or in response to, a particular event had been popular in England in the seventeenth century. The style produced masterpieces like Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” which meditates uneasily on the execution of Charles II in 1649, and John Milton’s 1655 sonnet “On the Late Massacres in Piedmont,” which grieves for the persecution of a Protestant sect in Italy. As these examples suggest, the occasional poem flourished in an era when politics were (to use an anachronistic word) ideological, so that thinking about current events involved passionate and comprehensive moral judgments.

For the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, by contrast, the truths of poetry stood in opposition to the tumult of history. Keats’s Grecian urn is a “sylvan historian,” indifferent to the day’s headlines: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man,” the poet writes. The high modernists of the early twentieth century essentially agreed that art was superior to history. Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” written in the aftermath of World War I, complained that society had ceased to honor its artists for precisely that reason, having lost its taste for the permanent and the sublime:

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze.

But Pound was born in 1885, in a prewar world. Wystan Hugh Auden, born in 1907, saw things differently. It would be wrong to say that Auden was in sympathy with his age; he worked hard to counter the shallowness and political fury that he saw as the curses of the twentieth century. But he understood that, in the 1930s, poetry was bound to descend from the heights and become occasional, as it was during the English Civil War. When public events are so momentous, they can constitute a generation’s most significant private experiences. “Yesterday the classic lecture / On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle,” Auden declared in “Spain”; the demand was poetic as well as political.

Four of the most famous poems that Auden ever wrote can be found in the “Occasional Poems” section of Another Time. In addition to “Spain”—retitled “Spain 1937,” to make the geopolitical context clear—there are the elegy for Yeats, who died in January 1939; an elegy for Sigmund Freud, dead later the same year; and “September 1, 1939,” Auden’s great poem on the beginning of World War II. According to Mendelson’s note, this was completed by September 7, when Auden wrote in his journal, “Finished war poem. Believe it’s alright but am too upset to have any critical judgment.”

Auden’s masterpiece came quickly because the occasion was one for which Europeans of his generation had been waiting, consciously or unconsciously, for most of their lives. The poet tapped into this ambient sense of dread before he was out of his teens. In 1928, he had a collection of his poems privately printed on a handpress by his friend Stephen Spender. In the Complete Poems, the text of this booklet is found in the section of “Juvenilia,” but Auden included a few of the poems in his first real book, Poems, two years later. One is a sonnet about a spy on a failed mission: “They ignored his wires. / The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.” The poem beginning “Who stands, the crux left of the watershed” is another enigmatic story of failure and impending danger: “Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock, / Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed; / This land, cut off, will not communicate,” Auden writes.

The fact that it’s impossible to say exactly what’s going on in these teenage poems only heightens their eerie power. In Auden’s 1930 Poems, the same mood is more fully developed:

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

There is no “occasion” here, no explicit reference to public events; but all the same, there is no mistaking that the poem is a prophecy. Something very bad is on its way, though no one can say exactly when it will arrive, or what form it will take. For young readers of poetry in the 1930s, growing up in a world of triumphant fascism and Communism, these oracles felt intimate and trustworthy, and they took Auden to their hearts. “When old men, dying in their beds, mumble something unintelligible to the nurse, it is some of those lines they will be repeating,” observed the American poet Randall Jarrell about Auden’s early work.

In “September 1, 1939,” the “destruction” has finally arrived. It was impossible to know, on the day Germany invaded Poland, that the war would last for six years and cost some 50 million lives, turning the names of Auschwitz and Hiroshima into symbols of unprecedented horror. But the title of the poem alone makes clear that Auden knew the magnitude of what was coming. Most occasional poems use the title to explain their occasion—Oliver Cromwell becoming the ruler of England, the Spanish Civil War. By using just the date, Auden suggests that every future reader will know what September 1, 1939, signifies in history. More than 80 years later, we still do.

For Auden, 1939 was a personal turning point, as well. In January, he moved from England to New York, which would be his primary home until near the end of his life. The timing of his expatriation received bitter criticism back home, especially once the Blitz and wartime austerity began. In 1940, a member of Parliament denounced Auden (and Isherwood, who moved to California at the same time) for “seeking refuge abroad” and proposed that their British citizenship be revoked.

More important, in literary terms, was the way moving to America removed Auden from the communal and generational experiences he had channeled in his early poetry. Indeed, that is exactly why he chose to leave: he was tired of being a spokesman and a celebrity. In America, he would be a free agent, responsible only to his own conscience and imagination. Mendelson’s Complete Poems reflects the importance of this break: volume 1 includes Auden’s work from 1927 to 1939; volume 2, from 1940 to 1973.

This background helps to explain one of the most striking things about “September 1, 1939”: while it is about the beginning of a war, it has the sense of an ending, even of a defeat. A quarter-century earlier, in 1914, Rupert Brooke had greeted World War I with a poem—ironically titled “Peace”—that looked forward to combat as a moral plunge-bath: “Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping! / With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power / To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping.” Within months, the poet of cleanness, stationed in Egypt, was dead from septicemia, caused by an infected mosquito bite. By Armistice Day, Britain had lost 900,000 men—about 6 percent of the country’s adult male population, the equivalent of 6 million Americans today.

“The clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade,” Auden wrote in his famous poem “September 1, 1939,” marking the German invasion of Poland and the advent of World War II. (WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

The greatest hope for Englishmen of Auden’s generation was to avoid another such catastrophe. So in September 1939, the feeling that overwhelmed him wasn’t Brooke-like excitement, or even stoic resolve, but shame on behalf of a society that had failed so profoundly. “The clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade,” Auden wrote, conscious that he was publicly associated with the left-wing hopes of the 1930s. Europe thought it could ignore its demons, and now it was too late: “The enlightenment driven away, / The habit-forming pain, / Mismanagement and grief: / We must suffer them all again.”

Famously, the poem begins with Donne-like immediacy. “I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street,” Auden writes, and while the setting suits the poem’s mood of shame, it was no metaphor. On the night that Germany invaded Poland, Auden was drinking at Dizzy’s, one of the clubs on Manhattan’s West 52nd Street, a jazz mecca of the 1930s. (The poem starts in medias res; but according to Mendelson’s notes, Auden actually began writing it the next day, in New Jersey.)

Yet after the first line, 52nd Street is seen no more, and soon Auden is writing with pompous capital letters about entities such as “Collective Man,” “Important Persons,” and “Authority,” which have no address. To explain what “has driven a culture mad” in Nazi Germany, he invokes four centuries of German history, from Martin Luther to Hitler. And that’s just the start—he goes on to discuss democracy and dictatorship; European imperialism and “the international wrong”; and finally, the original sin of human selfishness, which “craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love, / But to be loved alone.”

By the end of the poem, the war has been effectively de-historicized, becoming simply the latest example of humanity’s fallen condition. The only solution now, as at the time of the Flood, is for us to stop being bad and be good instead: “We must love one another or die.” It is one of Auden’s most famous lines; and in the context of the poem, it is very potent. Yet it’s also an example of the abstraction that makes “September 1, 1939” feel at odds with itself as an occasional poem. It is as if, to compass the magnitude of the event, Auden must climb to a height from which all human affairs look small.

Auden was always drawn to bird’s-eye perspectives, including literal ones. He wrote about aviators in his 1932 book The Orators and mountain-climbers in his 1936 play The Ascent of F6, a collaboration with Isherwood. Intellectually, too, he tends to write about history and human nature as if from high above, rather than from the middle of the scrimmage. At its best, this perspective allows him to conjure a whole life or era in a few lines. A thrilling example is “The Fall of Rome,” a 1947 poem that captures centuries of decay in a seven-stanza montage:

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

But Auden’s love of explaining and summing up also gives rise to the didacticism that became increasingly evident in his later work. The grandson of two ministers, Auden finds it quite natural to sermonize about things such as sin and love. This was one of the habits that the Modernists sought to banish from poetry, believing, in Wallace Stevens’s famous words, that a poem should give us “not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself.” Just how little Auden shared this view can be seen in a few lines from “New Year Letter,” a long poem he began on January 1, 1940:

To set in order—that’s the task
Both Eros and Apollo ask;
For Art and Life agree in this
That each intends a synthesis,
That order which must be the end
That all self-loving things intend
Who struggle with their liberty,
Who use, that is, their will to be.

What Auden offers in these lines, as in many other passages in his later work, is a formal statement of a commonplace idea. It is commonplace not because it is trivial or mediocre but because it is a kind of idea that his original readers would find automatically acceptable. Alexander Pope did the same thing in his “Essay on Man,” setting out the world-picture of 1733 with clarity and brio:

From nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
And, if each system in gradation roll
Alike essential to th’ amazing whole,
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the whole must fall.

The difference between Pope’s lines and Auden’s is that, where eighteenth-century man dwells in an orderly universe, his twentieth-century counterpart sees it as his task to create order—first of all, in his own soul. But both poets use verse to explain and clarify a shared truth, rather than to discover their own original truth.

The truths that Auden wanted to share in the 1940s were Christian. As a teenager, he had left religion behind, but in 1940, he rejoined the Church of England, largely under the influence of his reading of Kierkegaard. Christianity immediately moved to the center of his work, as he began writing “For the Time Being,” a book-length meditation on the Nativity. “Nones,” a longish poem of 1950, is about the Crucifixion; Auden later expanded it into a sequence, “Horae Canonicae,” named for the seven “canonical hours” set aside for prayer in the Catholic liturgy.

One of the appeals of Christian orthodoxy for Auden, as for T. S. Eliot in the 1920s, was that it offered a more humane alternative to the ferocious ideologies of the twentieth century. Instead of blaming a class or race for the world’s evils, it insisted that we are all individually responsible and that redemption must begin by acknowledging our weakness rather than vaunting our strength. This idea put Auden in the company of mid-century liberal figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling, who became his friends in New York.

Christian, Jewish, or atheist, these thinkers insisted on the virtue of intellectual and moral humility. Auden gave this worldview poetic statement in his 1948 poem “In Praise of Limestone,” where he commends the landscape of the Mediterranean for being moderate and mutable, for avoiding absolutes:

It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights.

One doesn’t have to be a Christian believer to find the messages of Auden’s later work morally admirable. The problem is that they are messages, delivered by a writer who knows just what he wants to say. Nothing could be further, in tone or spirit, from the poems that Eliot wrote about his conversion, shot through with the silence of struggle and doubt. It seems perverse to say of a great poet that he wrote too easily, but after reaching the end of Auden’s Complete Poems, one feels that he would have been even greater if he had known—and shown—what it is like to be at a loss for words.

Top Photo: Auden was an inveterate reviser, never hesitating to change his published words if he felt it was called for. (JERRY COOKE/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES)


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