September 1, 1939
Vault Oversize Wing MS 196
Bringing Auden’s Poetry Full Circle
In conjunction with one of our current exhibitions, “Exploration 2013: The 27th Annual Juried Exhibition of the Chicago Calligraphy Collective,” we look back at a past Newberry Purchase-Prize winner: “September 1, 1939” by Carl E. Kurtz, a work that attempts to recuperate a line of W.H. Auden’s poetry that the poet himself disavowed.
“We must love one another or die” appears in the penultimate stanza of “September 1, 1939” (the poem), although in certain anthologies Auden either had the line expunged or appended with a note explaining he considered it “trash” he was “ashamed to have written.” Auden wrote the poem in consideration of, and ostensibly on, the day Hitler invaded Poland and officially sparked the Second World War. From “one of those dives/On Fifty-second Street” the speaker helplessly sips a pint while all hell breaks loose across the Atlantic. Diagnosing a dark personal history as the cause of the conflict (“Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return”), he prescribes an intimate form of love, reproducing itself until it comes to define global politics. In his subsequent self-censorship, Auden repented the peccadillo of sentimentality born of an impulsive moment. But perhaps Auden rejected not the philosophical content but the emotional excess of the line. As Peter Levine puts it, “Auden is asking whether his own love is ‘normal’—and also whether human love (in general) is a source of evil or a solution to it.” Love and hate might not be distinct categories so much as two sides of the same coin; love of one’s country, of one’s race can, for example, launch a holocaust.
The Kurtz piece is visually arresting. According to Kurtz, the letterforms are meant to highlight the “non-utilitarian design” over the “utilitarian function of the written word.” Indeed, one of the surprises after careful study is the realization that there has been decipherable language within the calligraphic design all along. The outer of the two concentric circles contains Auden’s “we must love one another or die,” while the inner ring is Jesus’ injunction to his disciples in John 13:34 to “love one another.” The design is meant to harmonize the two quotes. “By changing the horizontal writing line and making it circular the messages loop, the ending always returns to the beginning and thus they repeat themselves infinitely,” says Kurtz. Alternatively, the opposite could be said to be true. As the two lines of text follow the same circular motion, they orbit one another on separate paths that will never intersect.