From the first issue, W. H. Auden was an essential contributor of poetry and criticism to The New York Review; the 1969 Christmas issue, in rare form, featured “The Ballad of Barnaby” in its entirety on the cover (written for accompaniment by guitar and heavenly chorus). In our Holiday Issue this year, we published “We get the Dialectic fairly well,” a poem written in 1940, not long after Auden had left Britain and begun a new life in New York, and unpublished at the time of his death in 1973. It concerns the unknowability of fate and how to meet it in our lives: head on, or do we wait for it? Or can fate pass us by?
The new poem is collected in The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, two volumes forthcoming from Princeton University Press in April. Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, has been editing the ten-volume series for over three decades; Poems will complete it. During that time, Mendelson has written regularly for the Review on Auden’s life and work, as well as on numerous other subjects in American twentieth-century literature and the digital world. He is a professor of English at Columbia University, where he teaches a popular undergraduate course called Yeats, Eliot, Auden.
I was never able to schedule that course, so in an e-mail this week I asked him for a lesson in close reading.
Lucy Jakub: Why do you suppose “We get the Dialectic fairly well” was never published?
Edward Mendelson: There’s no way of knowing. My guess is that he simply decided that it wasn’t good enough to publish. He wrote quite a few poems that seem highly publishable, but which he abandoned, usually without saying why.
What sort of rhyme scheme is used in the poem?
Formally, the poem is a modified sestina: instead of repeating all six end-words in each stanza, it uses recurring end-words in three of the six lines of each stanza and different end-words in the other three lines. Structurally, the poem embodies its own theme: half of it is effectively fated (the same words recur), half of it is effectively free (Auden chooses different end-words for that half). His preliminary outline of the poem uses capital letters (ABC) for the recurring end-words and lower-case letters (abc) for the differing ones.
A standard sestina ends with a three-line stanza called an “envoi” that uses all six of the end-words from the six-line stanzas. Auden’s preliminary outline includes the end-words of an envoi stanza that he eventually did not write:
The manuscript of the poem seems highly polished, and doesn’t include an envoi, so it’s probable that Auden decided not to write one; the poem was already not a standard sestina, so he allowed himself the freedom of omitting the conventional envoi. But it’s also at least possible that he intended to write an envoi but abandoned the poem before he did 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 streams descending turn to trees that climb.” What significance did the term hold for Auden, and what does he mean by using it here?
Auden was always interested in this idea (from Hegel via Marx) that one thing (the thesis) always turns into its opposite (the antithesis) and that the interaction of the two leads to a synthesis, though this poem focuses on the thesis and antithesis more than the synthesis. The water of the downward-running stream feeds the roots of the upward-growing tree; opposites (thesis and antithesis) attract (because their union leads to a synthesis), etc.
Auden was also fascinated by the unsolvable problem of how much of life is governed by necessity (biological, physical, etc.) and how much is chosen through freedom. So this poem asks (without answering) how much the dialectic is an inevitable process and how much the dialectic is driven by free choices: Are we simply compelled to change the course of our lives (“be great,” “get well”) or do we choose when to make that change?
The poem seems hauntingly pertinent to the present moment, particularly its second stanza:
Granted that we might possibly be great
And even be expected to get well
How can we know it is required by fate
As truths are forced on poets by a rhyme?
Ought we to rush upon our lives pell-mell?
Things have to happen at the proper time
This year especially, so much about the future seems to hang in precarious balance. Will we respond adequately to climate change? Will democracy endure? As for those last two lines, in this second pandemic winter, I consider them every time I leave the house! But of course, Auden wrote this poem eighty years ago, during a different ominous period. How did he engage with the threat of fascism, and the nation’s entry into war—and what else was on his mind in 1940?
What makes this poem feel so contemporary, I think, is the same thing that makes every great poem feel contemporary. It was provoked into existence by events that happened in the world, and in Auden’s psychology, around 1940. But it’s a poem about the kinds of anxieties and doubts and hopes that everyone feels in what Auden called, in another poem (in 1935), “this hour of crisis and dismay.”
Not long before he wrote this poem, he had tried to convince himself that the disaster of Nazism would somehow get resolved through an inevitable historical process—something like the fated version of the dialectic in this poem. There were Marxist ideas of history in the air that saw history as leading inexorably to the best possible ending. But Auden also knew that inevitable processes are only part of any story. You had to choose the future that you wanted to achieve.
One thing this poem does brilliantly well is to see how difficult it is to decide exactly what to do to achieve the kind of change (in society, in yourself) that you want to achieve. One problem that he focused on in this and other poems was the way in which many people feel obliged to take action, but they take action that doesn’t bring them closer to the goals they want, actions that can hinder those goals under the guise of advancing them. This is a problem that is as real now as it was then, and it’s exactly what the lines you quoted are about.
At the time Auden was writing this poem he was also returning to the Anglican Church that he thought he had abandoned forever at thirteen; his religion had no supernatural elements, but instead focused on moral absolutes that he thought of as having the same kind of truth that the laws of physics have. (For example—and this is mine, not his—if you lie to yourself, you cannot escape suffering from the conflict you create in yourself; you are free to lie, but not escape the consequences of lying.) He was using “unconditional” (the word occurs in the poem) as a secular synonym for an adult’s (not a child’s) concept of God. For example, in another poem (“Christmas 1940”) written around the same time:
Either we serve the Unconditional,
Or some Hitlerian monster will supply
An iron convention to do evil by.
How do you read this poem personally? What lines grab you?
A friend said of the poem, “This one gave me shivers.” That’s exactly how I feel about it. Like all the poems and novels that affect me most, it holds up a mirror to my own doubts and indecisions. The image that I see in the mirror is completely non-flattering, but the mirror itself—the form and language of the poem—is exhilarating in its energy and poise.