From issue one, WH Auden has been a major contributor of poetry and criticism to New York Review; the 1969 Christmas issue, in rare form, featured “The Ballad of Barnaby” in its entirety on the cover (written for guitar and heavenly chorus accompaniment). In our holiday issue this year, we published “We Get Dialectics Fairly Good,” a poem written in 1941, shortly after Auden left Britain and started a new life in New York City, and unprecedented at the time of his death in 1974. It is about the unknowability of fate and how to face it in our lives: head on or are we waiting for it? Or can fate escape us?
The new poem is collected in The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, two volumes to be published by Princeton University Press in April. Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, has edited the ten-volume series for over three decades; Poems will complete it. During this time, Mendelson wrote regularly for the Review on the life and work of Auden, as well as on many other subjects of American literature of the 20th century and of the digital world. He is an English professor at Columbia University, where he teaches a popular undergraduate course called Yeats, Eliot, Auden.
I was never able to schedule this class, so in an email this week I asked for a lesson in close reading.
Lucy Jakub: Why do you think “We understand dialectics well enough” has never been published?
Edward Mendelson: There is no way to know. I guess he just decided it wasn’t good enough to post. He has written quite a few poems which seem highly publishable, but which he gave up, usually without saying why.
What sort of rhyme scheme is used in the poem?
Formally, the poem is a modified sestina: instead of repeating the six end words in each stanza, it uses recurring end words in three of the six lines in each stanza and different end words in the other three lines. Structurally, the poem embodies its own theme: half is indeed intended (the same words come back), half is effectively free (Auden chooses different end words for this half). His preliminary outline of the poem uses upper case letters (ABC) for the final recurring words and lower case letters (abc) for the different ones.
A standard sestina ends with a three-line stanza called “send,” which uses the six words at the end of the six-line stanzas. Auden’s preliminary outline includes the last words of a sending stanza that he ultimately did not write:
The poem’s manuscript looks very polished and doesn’t include an outlining, so it’s likely Auden decided not to write one; the poem was already not a standard sestina, so he allowed himself the freedom to omit the conventional sending. But it’s also at least possible that he intended to write a submission but abandoned the poem before doing so. I tend to believe he decided not to write one, but I can’t prove it.
The poem opens by invoking “the dialectic”, which is then unexpectedly applied to “how the streams that descend turn into trees that climb”. What did the term mean to Auden, and what does he mean by using it here?
Auden has always been interested in this idea (from Marx via Hegel) that a thing (the thesis) always turns into its opposite (the antithesis) and that the interaction of the two leads to a synthesis, although this poem focuses on thesis and antithesis more than synthesis. The water from the descending stream feeds the roots of the tree which grows upwards; opposites (thesis and antithesis) attract (because their union leads to a synthesis), etc.
Auden was also fascinated by the intractable problem of how much of life is governed by necessity (biological, physical, etc.) and how much is chosen by freedom. This poem therefore asks (without answering) how dialectic is an inevitable process and how dialectic is motivated by free choices: do we choose when to make this change?
The poem seems hauntingly relevant for the present moment, especially its second stanza:
Okay maybe we could be great
And even expect to get better
How do we know it’s required by fate
As truths are imposed on poets by a rhyme?
Do we rush into our jumbled lives?
Things must happen at the right time
This year in particular, so much for the future seems to be in precarious balance. Are we going to respond adequately to climate change? Will democracy last? As for these last two lines, in this second pandemic winter, I consider them every time I leave my home! But of course, Auden wrote this poem eighty years ago, at another disturbing time. How did he deal with the threat of fascism and the nation’s entry into war – and what else was he thinking of in 1941?
What makes this poem so contemporary, I think, is the same thing that makes every great poem contemporary. It was brought about by events that took place in the world, and in Auden’s psychology, around 1940. But it is a poem about the types of anxieties, doubts and hopes that everyone feels in this. which Auden called, in another poem (in 1935), “this hour of crisis and dismay.”
Shortly before writing this poem, he had tried to convince himself that the disaster of Nazism would somehow be resolved by some inevitable historical process – something like the fatal version of the dialectic in this poem. . There were Marxist ideas of history in the air which saw history as inexorably leading to the best possible end. But Auden also knew that inevitable processes are only part of the story. You had to choose the future you wanted to achieve.
One thing this poem does brilliantly is how difficult it is to decide exactly what to do to achieve the kind of change (in society, per se) that you want to achieve. One issue he focused on in this and other poem was how many people feel pressured to act, but they take actions that don’t get them closer to the goals they want, actions that can hamper these goals under the pretext of advancing them. This is a problem that is as real today as it was then, and that is exactly the subject of the lines you quoted.
As Auden wrote this poem, he was also returning to the Anglican Church which he believed to have abandoned forever at thirteen; his religion had no supernatural elements, but rather focused on moral absolutes which he considered to have the same kind of truth as the laws of physics. (For example – and it is mine, not hers – if you lie to yourself, you cannot escape the pain of the conflict you create within yourself; you are free to lie, but not to escape the consequences of lying.) â(the word appears in the poem) as a secular synonym for the concept of God of an adult (not a child). For example, in another poem (“Christmas 1940”) written around the same time:
Either we serve the Unconditional,
Or some Hitlerite monster will provide
An iron convention to do evil.
How do you read this poem personally? What lines catch you?
A friend said of the poem, âThis one gave me chills. That is exactly what I feel. Like all the poems and novels that touch me the most, it is a mirror of my own doubts and indecisions. The image I see in the mirror is by no means flattering, but the mirror itself – the form and language of the poem – is uplifting in its energy and poise.