Does Love Survive Loss?
Auden and Larkin each wrote powerful lines about love—and then had grave doubts about them. Why?
Their “stone fidelity” has come to prove:
“Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”
I feel a sharp tender shock every time I read that line. It’s one that attained a certain wider degree of attention when Anthony Lane, the witty—and rarely sentimental—New Yorker film critic, cited it in a beautiful essay he wrote in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He related Larkin’s line to the image of the two people who jumped to their death from the burning towers, hand in hand, like the figures on Larkin’s Arundel tomb.
“What will survive of us is love.”
All alone, extracted from the poem, the line has the feel of an unmediated affirmation uncharacteristic of Larkin (or Lane). Let’s face it, it sounds more like Oprah (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Of course, there’s more nuance and depth—and irony—to it when you consider it in context. But before we really dig into Larkin’s unexpected Hallmark moment—and the footnote that complicates our view of it— let me first say a little more about the eerily not-quite-parallel case of W.H. Auden’s famous line about love, because its tormented fate at the author’s own hands may foreshadow—maybe even have caused—what we now know are Larkin’s second thoughts about “what will survive of us is love.”
Auden’s line—and his second thoughts about it—invite questions about what we talk about when we talk about this kind of love. Not just mere perishable personal romantic love, but also the kind of numinous transfigured, impersonal universal love that embraces us all, survives like a holy ghost, survives like smoke from a High-Church censer ascending to heaven from the mortal bodies it inspirited.
Auden’s more famous line about love (and death) refers at first glance to the title date of his poem “September 1, 1939,” the date, of course, of the Nazi invasion of Poland that began the slaughter of the Second World War. It’s the poem that opens:
Later lines from this despairing poem that has given birth to half a dozen book titles such as “The Haunted Wood” and “The Psychopathic God” and several aphorisms that now sound like old saws: “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” (This last was Auden’s explanation for Hitler, the “psychopathic god” himself.)
And yet it is a poem whose original version climaxed with the line, “We must love one another or die.”
A line that was also invoked after 9/11, as a consolatory uplift-inspiring sentiment that supposedly turned that tragedy into a “teachable moment.” A line that has even more fatally, gratingly become a greeting card sentiment when detached from its context. Auden, turned on the line ferociously, at first forbidding any republication of “September 1” that contained it—and the entire (penultimate) stanza it concludes.
Auden did allow the line a temporary return from banishment when he grudgingly agreed to include an altered version in a collected works edition. It was a monumental alteration, though. He changed the line from “We must love one another OR die” To “We must love one another AND die.” (Some wit suggested Auden should have changed it to “We must love one another AND/OR die.”)
The result of Auden’s emendation is an entirely different poem.
Version One opens up a romantic vision of hope: If only we could love one other we would not die—at least we would not kill ourselves in wars like the one that had just started when the line was written. And Version One suggests, perhaps, something more: That war or no war, the love in our lives will endow us with a kind of immortality denied those who haven’t loved in such a totalizing way.
Version Two—“We must love one another AND die”—is utterly altered: Immortality of any kind—even the precarious “survival” Larkin will later suggest—is not offered by love. Which does not denigrate, even may elevate love. Love for its own sake, love that can perish and die, love not for some promise of immortality. This is tragic, romantic, existentialist, French cinema love, perishable with our death or the death of our love, but nonetheless, even more valued, despite (or because) of its transience. We must love one another even though we will die, and it will not make a difference—it won’t amount to more than the “hill of beans” in Casablanca to the world of war and peace. Its burning existence and extinction in the moment is all that counts.
You won’t have to worry about opening a greeting card and seeing “We must love one another and die.” Not a Hallmark moment.
But this change still didn’t satisfy Auden, who seems to have genuinely feared for his reputation as a complex and serious poet if “We must love one another or die”—in any version—continued to be his most quoted legacy. And so he kept attacking it whenever he spoke or wrote of it, banning the stanza from publication. (The stanza in which the line occurs is admittedly not his best, concerning itself as it does with the poet speaking truth to power in a self-congratulatory way.)
But there I go, adopting Auden’s retroactive self-loathing of the line, and I’m not sure it was such a crime against poetry. Must we ban from our minds a burst of emotional earnestness from a poet whose frequent acerbic ironies makes it all the more salient? Has self-consciously highbrow culture made such a fetish of complexity, ambiguity, and obscurity as a measure of worth that we condemn or condescend to more simple, heartfelt exclamations? Don’t we feel a “sharp tender shock” at the original line? Is it always more mature and serious for a poet to be riddled by doubt and conflict, rather than to give way to transcendence? Perhaps we should pay attention to these near-ecstatic, almost vatic, outbursts, even if the poets in question are self-conscious about them. One can almost hear them: Oh my god did I write that? Could it be that Larkin was aware of Auden's discomfort, and that was what led to his own second thoughts?
Even if we do appreciate these earnest, one-line sermons, what do they amount to? Are they inherently vapid, akin to the Beatles’ equation? (For poetic compression, Lennon and McCartney had nothing on Bob Marley, for whom two words were enough: “One love.” Or Bono, for that matter, who used just one word: “One.”) That such lines leave themselves open to mockery is our fault, not theirs. Simplicity is not the same as simplemindedness and can aspire to the sublime.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.