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Alan Jacobs

Shame the Devil

In the wake of September 11, everyone was quoting W.H Auden's September 1, 1939. But Auden himself repudiated the poem's most famous lines.

In Shakespeare's first Henry IV play, one of the rebels against the king, a Welshman named Owen Glendower, lays claim to marvelous magical powers and supernatural gifts. His powers have been testified to from his conception; he is both a prophet and the object of prophecy. He begins by telling an assemblage of rebel leaders of the dramatic signs in the heavens that heralded his nativity:

… at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark'd me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Where is he living, clipp'd in with the sea
That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?
And bring him out that is but woman's son
Can trace me in the tedious ways of art
And hold me pace in deep experiments.

With these boasts young Harry Percy—Hotspur—has no patience. When Glendower resonantly proclaims, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," Hotspur replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?" When Glendower in turn replies, "Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil," Hotspur's final answer is decisive:

And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I'll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!

Hotspur's counsel to Glendower is my counsel to all of us. Let it be my text and my meditation.


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a particular poem came again and again to the public's attention—a poem by W. H. Auden called "September 1, 1939." On the Saturday after the attacks, Scott Simon read the poem aloud on National Public Radio; a friend of mine who teaches at the University of Virginia heard it declaimed at an interfaith prayer meeting; on October 11, the one-month anniversary of the attacks, The New Yorker magazine sponsored, program at New York's Town Hall called "Beyond Words" during which many writers read the work of others on relevant themes, and there the Irish poet Paul Muldoon read "September 1, 1939." (I find it ironic that a program entitled "Beyond Words" would be composed of nothing but words; surely during the course of the evening someone called attention to that irony, but the words kept coming all the same. For The New Yorker, nothing is ever truly beyond words.) There was even an article about the phenomenon, by Eric McHenry, posted on the online magazine Slate, but we'll get back to that later.

Such use of this particular poem was almost inevitable, given the presence of the month of September in the title, the poem's concern with a just-arrived world crisis, its association with New York City, and the popularity, among literarily educated Americans, of at least some of the sentiments the poem expresses. The first day of September in 1939 was of course the day on which Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and therefore—thanks to a mutual defense treaty Britain and France had signed with Poland—the beginning of the long-dreaded European war. In January of that year, Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood had come to America for an indefinite stay. (Both, as it turned out, would become American citizens and would live in this country for at least part of the year for the rest of their lives.) The two friends landed in New York, but Isherwood soon decamped for sunnier California; Auden, though, stayed, and soon found a house in Brooklyn where he lived with one of the most extraordinary assemblages of characters one could imagine: the great English composer Benjamin Britten, his lover the tenor Peter Pears, Thomas Mann's son Golo, the writers Paul and Jane Bowles, the young Southern novelist Carson McCullers, and, for a brief time anyway, the most famous of them all, the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But Manhattan, then as now, was where most of the action was, and Auden spent a lot of time there; so his poem about the moment at which the European world collapsed begins with these words:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street.

Though the events which trouble Auden's spirit occurred across the Atlantic, he receives the news in New York; a certain geographical—and perhaps more than geographical—disconnection from the tragic events is essential to the poem's meditative structure. And, really, this is not wholly different from the situation of those gathered in New York's Town Hall a month ago, brooding on the events that had occurred at the southern tip of Manhattan Island a month before.

Casting his mind across the ocean, then, to the continent he had recently abandoned—largely because of the relentless pressures and expectations it held for him—Auden was moved to consider the question that one always considers in such situations: why did this horrible event happen? And his answer would become one of the two most famous moments in this very famous poem:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This is basically the argument of John Maynard Keynes's book of 1919, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, only in simplified and moralized form: the countries that had placed such an enormous financial and moral burden on Germany with the Treaty of Versailles were responsible for the events of September 1, and only pedantry or manipulative political rhetoric could mask that responsibility. And Auden emphasizes that he speaks not for himself only: anticipating those pedants and politicians, he masses the wisdom of "the public" and "schoolchildren." The appeal is palpably democratic, but the tone hieratic; the prophetic here wells up from below, rather than descending from on high.

One can easily trace the links between this poem and the events of September 11 of this year, events which have caused so many to ask, "What have we done to these people to make them so angry at us?" As I listened over the Internet to Paul Muldoon reading the poem and noticed the forceful sonorousness—the slight but audible increase in emphasis—with which he uttered the words "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return," I could hear in his voice the confidence of one who knows that the syllables he speaks carry prophetic force; and I could see in my mind's eye row after row of heads in a half-darkened hall nodding in sobered affirmation.

I said that this stanza constitutes one of the two most famous moments in the poem; the other comes in the penultimate stanza:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Once again, I recall Paul Muldoon's voice assuming a certain weight and substance as this stanza came to its resonant close—the weight and substance appropriate to the prophetic utterance. And I imagine those many attentive heads nodding again, or perhaps bowing slightly, burdened by the difficult truth of Auden's charitable imperative.

But it is not clear—and was not at even at the time clear to Auden—what power commands and undergirds such charity. A few months earlier Auden had written another famous poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which had its own memorable conclusion:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

But praise what? And why? Similarly, "September 1, 1939" ends with a plea, almost a prayer:

May I, composed like them,
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Here Muldoon, in his reading, became especially emphatic. But what should this flame affirm? In both poems the tone, the language itself, are hieratic and prophetic. But there seems to be no content to the message—the tone itself soothes or exhorts or encourages or strengthens, but only so long as we politely refrain from wondering why the verb "praise" has no object, and the "affirming flame" nothing in particular to affirm. On close inspection there is a certain vacuousness to such phrases, as though this brilliant poet were paying something less than full attention to the task before him.

As I noted earlier, "September 1, 1939" has been often read, or at least quoted, in the months since September 11, and frequently commented on; but only Eric McHenry, in the piece in Slate that I referred to earlier—its title, by the way, is "Auden on Bin Laden"—only Eric McHenry, to my knowledge, has noted one of the most interesting and significant facts about the poem: that within five years of writing it Auden had completely repudiated it, and eventually excluded it from all collections of his poems over which he had control. Why and how did this happen?

Alas, the story is too long to tell in full here. Suffice it to say that throughout the year 1940, as the war grew in intensity, as news of its cruelties became more detailed, as the character of the Nazi regime became more unavoidably clear—and, moreover, as his own personal life became richer and, then, more complex—Auden had cause to reconsider his thinking on many subjects, perhaps chief among them what Saint Paul named "the mystery of iniquity." The more deeply Auden contemplated the human capacity for evil, the more frivolous his explanation of Nazi aggression seemed—not because it is untrue that "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return," but because that is a small portion of the truth masquerading as the whole. The lines are resonant—they sound prophetic—because they are simple, but they are simple because they ignore so much of the truth. The prophetic tone, Auden came to believe, masked an evasion—as, he also came to believe, it so often does. In these years of self-examination, in the great turbulent anonymity of New York City, Auden came to recognize his own evasions and to repent of them. He eventually returned, with gratitude and relief, to the Christian faith of his childhood.

As for the other famous line, "We must love one another or die," Auden came to despise it. When compiling the first edition of his Collected Poems in 1945—and, incidentally, it should tell you something about Auden's achievement and his stature as a poet that his publishers asked him to collect his verse when he was still in his mid-thirties—Auden left "September 1, 1939" out of the collection, deeming it a poem not worthy of preservation. When his publishers cried that he couldn't possibly omit his best-known poem, Auden held firm for a while, but ultimately gave in—with the provision, though, that "We must love one another or die" be amended to "We must love one another and die." But, as he perfectly well knew, this renders the line meaningless, or at best ineffectual, without any remnant of the prophetic force which he had called forth when he wrote it; and in later editions of his poetry he was adamant about excluding the poem altogether. Once, later in the 1940s, Auden picked up a copy of a book containing "September 1, 1939" in the home of a friend, and wrote in the margin next to the famous line, "This is a lie." A lie because, again, it evades—evades our mortality, evades a recognition that mortality is the wage we have earned with our sin. "We must love one another or die" holds out the implicit promise that if we love one another we will not die. Here, death, as it does so often, gets in the way of a beautiful sentiment—the kind of sentiment we all relish, offering as it does a potential rescue from the most implacable of our enemies: the grave.

Many years later, Auden would write a wise and beautiful poem called "Ode to Terminus"—Terminus, the Latin god of boundaries, of limits, or, as Auden puts it, "of walls, doors, and reticence." Terminus, Auden says, alone can teach us that invaluable lesson: what we can't do, what is beyond our reach. The poem concludes with a sly look back at his earlier self, the young and brilliant poet who told us that we must love one another or die:

In this world our colossal immodesty
has plundered and poisoned, it is possible

  You still might save us, who by now have
  learned this:
   … that abhorred in the Heav'ns are all
  self-proclaimed poets who, to wow an
  audience, utter some resonant lie.

One could say that, in this poem, Auden is reminding himself of Hotspur's lesson to Glendower: the real task of the poet is not to cultivate the prophetic tone, the oracular utterance, but simply to tell the truth, and thereby shame the devil.


In the spring of 1936, another English writer—one who also paid attention to the events that led to what we now call World War II—was making the first of a series of trips to the Balkans. The British Council had invited Rebecca West to lecture in Yugoslavia, where signs of the rise of the Nazis and the ongoing depredations of Stalinism were already evident. West wrote to an official of the Council that the country would inevitably be "overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium." Soon she would realize, if she did not already, that Yugoslavia's "inheritance from Byzantium" was also a tense and complex thing, since the Byzantium of Christian Orthodoxy was also the Istanbul of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Here was a land whose past, present, and future placed it always at the intersection of immensely powerful states, empires, faiths: at this strange place in Southeastern Europe, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam collide. It was a place, West soon learned, of endlessly fascinating complication, and a place utterly endangered.

In the following years she would make two more trips to Yugoslavia, covering every province of the country from Croatia and Dalmatia through Bosnia and Serbia and on to Montenegro. And all the time she was writing an account of what she saw, an account that began as an imagined "short book" but gradually transformed itself into one of the largest, most ambitious, and greatest books of the twentieth century. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West would combine her three journeys into one, changing names, linking events, amplifying characters—but also spinning marvelous historical cadenzas: no one has written more compellingly than West about the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand which sparked what then was called the Great War, or about the tragic failure of the Emperor Stephen Dushan, or about the key moment in Serbian history, the crushing defeat of the Serbian people by the Ottoman Turks on the plain of Kossovo in 1389. (In the Vrdnik monastery in the Frushka Gora of Serbia, West saw, still lying in state, the headless body of Prince Lazar, who led the Serbs in that debacle. She touched his blackened and dessicated hand.)

West's story is in at least one respect a classic tale of the modern world: the encounter of the liberal mind with something much older than itself, something alien to it—something fully historical. She begins her narrative with frequent expressions of her disdain for the Croats, whom she believes sold their precious birthright for the cold pottage of the money and power offered them by the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Croats she meets are proud of their links with the West—links which, in West's mind (especially with German expansionism having come back to terrible life), should be their greatest shame. Her love is reserved for the Serbs, who remain faithful to their Eastern and Orthodox and Slavic roots; she has a kind of Rousseauian passion for their "primitive" attachment to their own history.

But as she goes deeper into Serbia, she sees more and more clearly a side of this attachment dark and inexplicable to her. She thinks of a place called the Sheep's Field in Macedonia, where these people whose "preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable" she has loved meet at an ancient stone to sacrifice animals, in hopes of making women fertile. ("But what they were doing at the rock was abominable.") She thinks above all of the strange fact that Prince Lazar is the greatest hero in Serbian history, not in spite of but because he lost the battle. The prophet Elijah in the form of a grey falcon, so the story goes, demanded that the prince choose between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom. The prince chose the latter. To the Serbs this is an act of great courage and piety, since the blood of so many of Lazar's people will therefore be on his hands; to West, it is an abysmal revelation:

"If this be so," I said to myself, "if it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory." I began to weep, for the left-wing people among whom I had lived all my life had in their attitude to foreign politics achieved such a betrayal. They were always right, they never imposed their rightness. "If this disposition to be at once Christ and Judas is inborn," I thought, "we might as well die, and the sooner the better, for the defeat is painful after the lovely promise."

A few years earlier, West had written an angry and sometimes scornful biography of Saint Augustine; but here, she comes very close to an Augustinian view of the human order. She does not, I believe, understand all that she sees; but she sees with a clarity almost unparalleled in her century.

And such seeing requires an almost astonishing courage, because again and again West must admit the inadequacy of the convictions that led her to Yugoslavia in the first place. She did not find what she was looking for—the "authentic" culture which had preserved its beautiful ancient ways. Nor did she find its opposite, the Conradian heart of darkness, something almost equally easy to discover. Rather she found a mixed thing, beauty and horror constantly side by side. It is true that near the end of the book it is the horror that seems to dominate, but that is a function of the crushing of her high hopes, and the onrushing tide of world war. What truly dominates is an overwhelming sense of the complexity of our social and moral worlds, of the extraordinary entanglements that make us who we are. West learns that telling the truth about this world is an overwhelmingly difficult thing to do, but she has the courage and resourcefulness to continue to try, as best she can, to leave nothing out that would make the story neater, more aesthetically pleasing, simpler and therefore more encouraging—and all this though she loves and craves artistic form above all things:

Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one's own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details.

But despite this passion for the cup which can contain and shape our lives, she won't impose form, she won't deface the truth with false clarification. In her time (as in ours), that is too dangerous. A powerful image of the temptation to impose form and meaning comes late in the book, as West and her companions are driving through Macedonia, and West suddenly calls out to the driver to stop the car:

I had reason; for on the balcony stood a man dressed in shining grey garments who was announcing his intention to address the plains by a gesture of supreme authority. The proud stance of his body showed that he had dug the truth out of the earth where it lay under the roots of the rock. The force of his right arm showed that he had drawn fire from heaven, so that he might weld this truth into our life, which thus shall not perish with our bodies. The long shadows lay bound to the plains, the mountains' bleakness was explored by the harsh horizontal beams of the falling sun; they, and the men and beasts who labored on them to no clear purpose, would know their deliverance so soon as they had heard him. Nearby there squatted on the grass beside the roadside two wretched veiled women, faceless bundles of dust-colored rags, probably Muslim divorced wives of the sort, more pitiable than the beggars of the towns, who hang about the fields and stretch out their hands to the peasants. It seemed as if they must spring up and throw aside their veils, never to beg again, as soon as he had spoken.
But he would never speak. He was a scarecrow dressed in rags which had been plastered in mud to give them solidity against the winter, and he had been stored on the balcony till it was time to put him out among the fruiting vines. His authority was an exhalation from a bundle of straw. … The soul can be uplifted, it can be seduced into seeing an end to its misery and believing that all has been planned for its good from the beginning, by a chance concatenation of matter that in fact means nothing and explains nothing, that is simply itself. So potent was the argument of the scarecrow to the eye that it made for incredulity regarding all other exaltations.

This episode occurs 775 pages into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The interpretive confidence with which West began her journey has long since given way to confusion and indecision; but so desperately does she want to hear the definitive prophetic word that she is ready at a moment's notice to give herself over to this Führer of the Macedonian fields—were he but to speak. But he does not speak; and her seemingly pointless quest must continue without benefit of the preternatural authority the hieratic figure had seemed, for that one moment, to embody. The prophet capable of resolving the manifold ambiguities of Yugoslavia had not, she discovered, been commissioned by any deity.

So she trudges on, like Dante in the depths of an ever-ramifying Hell, and at one point, very late in the book, she laments the situation in which she finds herself. She must explain, as part of her historical narration, something that happened on the battlefield of Kaimakshalan, but before proceeding, she pauses:

Of this battlefield, indeed, we need never think, for it is so far away. What is Kaimakshalan? A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty? This part of it is called South Serbia. And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria? And what has happened there? The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.

That places so far away that they could not possibly be relevant to our lives nevertheless are, somehow, intensely relevant—that is an experience with which we are increasingly familiar, are we not? And Rebecca West is the great writer of this predicament. She knew, as the book expanded wildly before her eyes, that she was doing something inexplicable to others, yet absolutely necessary. In letters written while Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was in progress, she referred to it as a "wretched, complicated book that won't interest anybody." Later she wrote of it as a "complete explanation of the course of history, but that of course will prevent anyone from having time to read it." Reading proofs (when the book had grown from an essay to its final half-a-million words) she saw what she had done as an "inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view."

When she finished her manuscript in early 1941, its length posed a singular problem, because in the midst of the war paper was being strictly rationed. But West's publishers, Macmillan of London, seem not to have hesitated: they found her narrative utterly absorbing. As her editor wrote, "Who would not be [compelled] by a book which demonstrated by its argument that the East End of London would not be lying in ruins if the Balkan Christian powers had not been defeated by the Turks in 1389?"

Rebecca West is a great writer, and her book a great book, because she told the whole of the truth that she could see—she told the hard truths, and the long truths. To be sure, she shaped her narrative artfully—she saw no need to observe the truth-telling canons of journalism. For instance, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon describes a single journey, though "in fact" West made three trips to Yugoslavia, no one of which exactly corresponds to the book's narrative structure. But in the strict sense she invents nothing.


That last sentence echoes one of the great poems of our time. It's called "Lying," and it's by Richard Wilbur:

In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner's roof,
Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town
In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse's neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter.

At the end of this poem Wilbur invokes that faculty of elaboration and connection that, whatever we choose to call it, makes art. "Odd that a thing is most itself when likened," he writes, and to "liken" is to pretend that one thing is another. This pretense leads to what Wilbur calls "the great lies told with the eyes half-shut / That have the truth in view." Those who tell such lies discern in ordinary events the lineaments of the extraordinary; for instance (and here Wilbur concludes),

That matter of a baggage-train surprised
By a few Gascons in the Pyrenees
Which, having worked three centuries and more
In the dark caves of France, poured out at last
The blood of Roland, who to Charles his king
And to the dove that hatched the dove-tailed world
Was faithful unto death, and shamed the devil.

By being faithful unto death, and telling the truth as best we can discern it—even, or perhaps especially, by telling great lies that have the truth in view—artists fulfill their role and function in society, and honor their God-given vocation. If God wishes to grant their words a prophetic power (as he most assuredly did with Rebecca West, though she did not believe in him), that's his business. The business of the artist is to be attentive—or, as Flannery O'Connor put it in one of her essays, to be stupid. The stupid artist is one too focused on "the turbine-vent which natural law / Spins on the grill-end of the diner's roof," or on a mud-plastered scarecrow on a hilltop in Macedonia, even to ask whether her vision is a prophetic one, whether her tale will provoke. May every artist, by God's grace, be stupid enough to tell the truth and shame the devil.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His book, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press), was published last fall; A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love is just out from Westview Press.

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