Ron Rosenbaum

"We must love one another or die" versus "We must love one another and die."

The question–one of the most vexing in literature and literarry studies–and life itself goddamit–has been troubling me of late. It’s about a much debated line (and revision and escision of a line) in W.H. Auden’s famous World War II poem, “September 1, 1939”.

it’s a heartbreakinly despairing poem, but in Auden’s original version there was this ambiguously uplifting line: “We must love one another or die”.

At first I heard a variation of the phrase on an NPR flashback to the voice of LBJ in the famous 1964 presidential camaign ad, the one known as “Daisy”, the one featuring a child child picking flowers that ends with a nuclear explosion filling the tv screen and the ominous voice of LBJ intoning: “We must learn to love each other or we must die.”

Then I saw another variation of the line used as an email signature by a commenter on Daily Kos. This one read: “We must love one another and die.” (ital. mine).It was not a careless error. (at least I don’t think so).

The back story to this variation is that for some reason Auden took an immense disliking to the original phrase, struck the verse in which it appeared from subsequent reprints of the poem and refused to allow the poem to be rerinted at all.

Then in one instance he did allow it to be reprinted as “and die”.

What are we to make of this? The general assumption is that Auden thought the original version too treacly, too faux uplifiting. In a poem otherwise devoted to bitter despairthere’s this line that could have been lifted from “All We Need is Love” and probably made a college dorm poster in the 60s.

“We must love one another and die” certainly avoids being too chipper, but does it suffer from the obverse flaw of being too rigidly despairing: we are condemned (that’s how “must” reads in this context) to love each other and die which makes death all the more horrid. Love is not a choice but the first act in an inevitable tragedy. True the first version implies in a certain respect that if we love one another we will not die, which is a lie or a delusion.

My personal investment inthis longstanding question deepened when I was googling around and I came across these two remarkable quotes from an obscurely named website:

“. . . the celebrated line from September 1939 is revised thus: ‘We must love one another and die.’ Did Auden know that I proposed this revision – in print – over a decade ago? If so, how unkind of him not to mention it.”
– Ken Tynan, Diaries 1974

“Flo Whittaker had once gently reproved Dr. Rosenbaum for his attitude toward politics. She had done so by quoting to him, in tones that rather made for righteousness, a line of poetry that she had often seen quoted in this connection: ‘We must love one another or die.’ Dr. Rosenbaum replied: ‘We must love one another and die.'”
– Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution, 1954

Wow! Dr. Rosenbaum! It kind of sounds like the downer thing I’d say.

What say you readers? Which version speaks to you, for you. Both or neither?