W. H. Auden’s Radical Humanism Was Unwavering

Unlike many prominent poets of his era, W. H. Auden was crystal clear on the need to fight fascism in Franco’s Spain and Hitler's Germany, and he wrote some of the greatest antiwar poetry ever set to page.

Poet W. H. Auden does an interview for the BBC television series Crosstalk in 1973. (Don Smith / Radio Times via Getty Images)

Looking back at the 1920s and ’30s, it is alarming to note how many of literary modernism’s greatest talents were either sympathetic to fascism or out-and-out Nazi collaborationists. Gertrude Stein, despite being Jewish herself, admired Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government so much that she translated the Nazi collaborator’s speeches into English, complete with glowing foreword. T. S. Eliot, arguably the most important and widely read English-language poet of the twentieth century, held Adolph Hitler in cautious esteem. Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s antisemitism was so widely divulged, and exterminationist in tenor, that it landed him a conviction for treason in the French courts following World War II. And Ezra Pound — the great discoverer of literary talent in the early part of the last century — became a full-fledged radio propagandist for Benito Mussolini’s Italy, operating out of the country from 1941 to 1945 while the continent burned.

It is out of this combustible mix of artistic genius and moral iniquity that W. H. Auden emerged. Alone among his contemporaries, Auden exemplified an unwavering radical humanism throughout what he would later call a “low, dishonest decade” (the 1930s), placing himself on the front line in the existential fight against fascism in Francisco Franco’s Spain, and writing some of the greatest antiwar poetry ever set down. Perhaps more important than this, Auden could see the Nazi regime for what it was: Fervently nationalist, yes. Violently militaristic, absolutely. But at its core, it was a regime driven by pseudoscientific racism and genocide. This seems nakedly obvious in retrospect, but in the 1930s, there were few non-Jewish observers who suspected something as abominable as the Shoah was about to stain the horizon. Seemingly in defiance of the literary movement that had fostered him, Auden spent the best part of the late 1930s and 1940s writing about European Jews: about their dispossession, about their tragedy, and about the plight of refugees more generally — in words that reverberate through our own “low, dishonest” times.

The Usual Squalid Mess Called History

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York in 1907, into a family of doctors and clergymen. After a comfortably upper-middle-class and itinerant childhood, he landed himself a scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford in 1925. Within a year, he’d shed the Anglican faith of his youth and exchange it for a burgeoning historical materialism, jettison biology in favor of English (lured, in part, by J. J. R. Tolkien’s lectures), and amass a group of like-minded and lifelong literary friends who would become famous as the Auden Group. In this milieu, which included the poet Cecil Day-Lewis (father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis) and author Christopher Isherwood, Auden found the freedom to express himself as a gay man in ways punitively denied by wider society. This was, let us not forget, the England that had only thirty years earlier hounded Oscar Wilde to his untimely death for his sexuality. Of this period, Auden would later say:

The Oxford of the 20s was frivolous. Looking back now, I find it incredible how secure life seemed. We were far too insular and preoccupied with ourselves to know or care what was going on across the Channel. Revolution in Russia, inflation in Germany and Austria, Fascism in Italy. Whatever fears or hopes they may have aroused in our elders went unnoticed by us. Before 1930, I never opened a newspaper.

But Auden was doing himself a disservice, a tendency that would grow stronger throughout his lifetime — a lifetime conspicuously lacking in the moral self-aggrandizement of poets and celebrities. During the general strike of 1926, while his classmates at Oxford were rushing to answer the Tory government’s call to help combat the strikers, Auden volunteered for the Trades Union Congress as a truck driver.

In any case, the roaring twenties couldn’t last forever. Auden graduated Oxford in 1928 and moved to Berlin for a year, where he enjoyed a comparatively liberated sexual and intellectual atmosphere. For all its charms, however, it was an atmosphere overhung by a sense of impending doom. “One knew after reading Mein Kampf,” he would later opine, “that a second World War was only a matter of time.” Upon returning to Britain, Auden’s first volume of poetry was published by Faber & Faber in 1930, commissioned by T. S. Eliot, who was by then a director at the publishing house. His earliest poems are often fragmentary, personal, and obscure, but as the interwar dreams of social and liberal democracy began to wane across Europe — trampled not by more left-wing ideologies but by fascism — Auden’s poetry became imbued with a radical and iridescent sense of humanism, justice, and its counter.

In 1935, without any hesitation, he agreed to marry Erika Mann (German author Thomas Mann’s daughter) — a queer woman whose citizenship the Nazis were seeking to revoke. The marriage of convenience spared her life, and Auden worked quietly to facilitate other such passport marriages as the Nazis violently consolidated their grip on Germany. Two years later, in 1937, he heeded the international call to arms on fascism’s latest frontier, Spain, and joined the International Brigades. The horrors he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War were profound, but so too was the sense of solidarity he experienced among the sundry groups mobilized to defeat Franco’s Nationalist army. The potency of this juxtaposition produced “Spain,” one of Auden’s most enduring and widely acclaimed poems. In it, he writes:

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty’s masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

For Auden, the worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Time and again, in a career notorious for its philosophical oscillations and excisions, he returns faithfully to a universal idyll where art, romantic love, and even food form the ephemeral texture of a meaningful and happy life, and where such things belong to everyone. Consider, for example, the closing stanza of “Moon Landing” (1969) — a spectacularly sassy and irascible poem written toward the end of his life to mark Apollo 11’s successful lunar mission, a venture Auden thought essentially pointless:

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

These pleasures — the fruits of artistry, gastronomy, and everyday, unassuming sainthood — were not the rightful or exclusive preserve of bourgeois life, and it is only a trick of “our apparatniks” and ignoble “History” that makes them appear so. But the Auden of the 1930s — of “Spain” — knew that these things were impossible without “the struggle”; that is, democratic class struggle and, in this instance, a struggle to the death with fascism. By now, his progenitors and contemporaries in the modernist school — the Pounds et al. — were well advanced in their journey toward Nazi apologism, driven to extremes, in the opinion of Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, by an aesthetic ideal that misremembered the past as grand and hierarchically organic.

An Affirming Flame

Whatever the roots of their wickedness and folly, Auden remained a determined creature of the present. In 1938, he traveled to China to report on the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, the latter finally triumphant in 1949. He returned to Europe on the eve of destruction to pen some of the most zeitgeist-encapsulating poems of the twentieth century. In reply to the “strongmen” now menacing daily life, his six-line “Epitaph on a Tyrant” (1939) is a miniature masterpiece of mockery and polemic:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Meanwhile, with European Jewry on the cusp of the most abhorrent and systematic persecution in human history, “Refugee Blues” (1939) stands as a devastating and timeless appeal to conscience, an urgent critique of a moment and of modernity, whose “banalities of evil” brought us here:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us. . . .

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive. . . .

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me. . . .

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Many more than ten thousand soldiers marched in the decade that followed, and many more than “you and me” perished. Auden would later bleakly remark, “Nothing I wrote postponed the war for five seconds or prevented one Jew being gassed.” This, again, should be understood more as self-effacement than as a renouncement of political engagement via poetry or art. Indeed, Auden continued to engage — both in his life and in his work — with the politics of the oppressed until his death in 1973 at the age of sixty-seven. His ideological makeup after the 1930s is difficult to pin down, but there was certainly a shift away from traditional historical materialism and toward Christian humanism. And it’s the humanism — the radical, defiant, and often challenging humanism — that carries through on his words, from cradle to grave, including in this closing passage from arguably his greatest poem, “September 1, 1939,” which he wrote on the day World War II started, and which contains the most powerful and moving tribute to human solidarity I have ever read:

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.