In 1969, W.H. Auden wrote a skeptical poem about the moon landing after he had declined a request to write a celebratory one.
As Apollo 11 was heading for the moon, the editors of The New York Times decided to celebrate the landing, scheduled for a few days later, by printing a poem about it on the front page. In an article twenty years later, A.M. Rosenthal, then the managing editor, recalled the editors’ thinking:
What the poet wrote would count most, but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all us.
Rosenthal continued, “We called one poet who just did not think much of the moon or us.” Rosenthal didn’t name names, but it was widely known in literary New York that the uncooperative poet was Auden. Someone at the Times, possibly Rosenthal, had offered to commission him to write a poem about the meaning of the event, and Auden had replied that it would have no meaning at all.
Rosenthal, who had ideas of his own about literary rankings, recalled that the Times “then decided to reach higher for someone with more zest in his soul—for Archibald MacLeish, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes.” MacLeish provided a suitable amalgam of fluff and bombast (“dazzle of silver in our leaves… and we have touched you!… O, a meaning!”) and the Times printed it on the front page on July 21, 1969—after warning MacLeish that he might be called upon to rewrite the poem at the last minute if the landing should be delayed until after press time.
The New York Times was not alone in asking Auden to pontificate on the event. A columnist in The Times of London reported on the day of the landing: “W.H. Auden was invited to join a party discussing the moral, historical, and philosophical implications of the moon-landing on Panorama [a current-affairs program on BBC television] tonight but replied that the event had no such implications whatsoever.”
Having declined a commission from The New York Times, Auden seems to have decided to write a poem about the event after all, but not one that the Times would have wanted. By the middle of August, he had finished “Moon Landing” and sent it to The New Yorker, which published it on September 6. This is the slightly revised text that Auden included in his collection Epistle to a Godson in 1972:
It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only
because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.
A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment
the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.
Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.
Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers
about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories, where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.
Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several
with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.
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.
After a half-century, Auden’s poem perhaps retains somewhat more immediacy than MacLeish’s. A few glosses, however, may be useful. The Oxford English Dictionary, Auden’s favorite book, gave him “osse,” an archaic (now only dialect) word meaning “to give augury.” The OED also gave him the obsolete sense of “period,” meaning “to bring to a termination.” The Moon’s “Old Man” is the face in the moon, and Auden’s “Austrian several” is the house and land in Kirchstetten where he spent his summers.
Abe Rosenthal, when he wrote that Auden didn’t think much of the moon “or us,” may have misunderstood Auden’s feelings about the Times in the 1960s. Auden regarded the paper entirely pragmatically, as his chief source of information about the outside world, a source that may or may not have been trustworthy. When Auden was asked for his views on the Vietnam War, he wrote a measured answer, concluding: “But it would be absurd to call this answer mine. It simply means that I am an American citizen who reads The New York Times.” He identified himself somewhat differently in a poem, “Prologue at Sixty”:
Who am I now?
An American? No, a New Yorker,
who opens his Times at the obit page.
“Moon Landing” was not Auden’s only comment on the event. A few months before the launch, William Honan, writing for Esquire, asked a few dozen public figures to suggest the first words that Neil Armstrong should say when he stepped on to the lunar surface—a much-discussed question at the time. Honan reported:
When I asked W.H. Auden what he would like to hear Armstrong say, he replied at first with a mischievous chuckle: “I’ve never done this before!” adding, “What else should he say? It would be a true statement.” But when I went on to ask if he would not prefer something more elevating, perhaps about world peace, he grew sober. “Well, that’s a little different,” Auden said. “We all know that the chief reason for their going there is military, so I don’t think you should ask them to say much about that!”