W.H. Auden is probably my favorite poet, and the only poet I’ve read enough of that I feel like I could discuss seriously without feeling like a giant fraud. His poem “Law Like Love” is undoubtedly the best known among lawyers, for obvious reasons, and from a quick search, the poem seems to have been quoted in law review articles over 40 times. It says something about Auden that his other works are also quoted relatively often in legal academia, a community that, in general, does not pay all that much attention to poetry.
Auden’s appeal, for me, is that he embodies some strange brand of cynically ironic libertarianism. How else would you describe a line like “To be free/is often to be lonely”? Still, his libertarian streaks are often overlooked, as Auden is better known for his dabblings in Marxism. Two of his most famous poems were, technically, communist propaganda, but his later repudiation of them is telling. The poems were removed from his later collections for being “dishonest,” and, as Auden described it, “A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained.”
Auden’s communism was not based in some economic theory, or in any desire for the state to control the machinery of civilization. In Auden’s view, communism’s appeal was that it provided a path to freedom from the oppressive coercion of the State. As he wrote in his poem “New Year Letter,”
“Who has ever met a poet (at least one who has had any success) for whom the real attraction of Communism did not lie in its premise that, under it, the state should wither away for others as it has already withered away for him?”
I’m pretty sure the idea of Auden-as-a-libertarian is not exactly widespread, but under the brand of textualist interpretation that Auden endorsed, I don’t think it’s an unfair characterization. His communism was motivated by much the same impulses that motivate libertarian ideology today, and he was unquestionably anti-totalitarian and pro-individual. His poem the “The Unknown Citizen” is my favorite of his commentary on the state verses the individual, and I wanted to share it here below. I always feel like it should be read alongside Epitath on a Tyrant, so go check that one out as well, it’s short.
As a side note, to carry on with my quest to show how every topic is, in some way, connected to international law, I’ll also mention that Auden translated the work of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General to the United Nations.
The Unknown Citizen
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
W.H. Auden (1939)