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David Lehman’s “Peace and War in American Poetry”

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The following essay was written in 2012 by David Lehman as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online “Poetry of American History” series that ran from 2012-2014. The series included essays and interviews by leaders in the literary field, including former Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry, that illustrated how poems by Americans helped define or expand the country. The aim was to complement conventional historical texts and showcase poetry’s place as an essential tool for recording our nation’s past. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting essays from “Poetry of American History” to bring them new light.

Peace and War in American Poetry


David Lehman. Photo credit: W. T. Pfefferle

War and Peace: the title of Tolstoy’s massive novel of Napoleonic Europe trips off the tongue. Not so “peace and war”: the inversion of the customary word order represents a victory of hope over experience—or of the poetry of aspiration over the prose of sad actuality. As a subject for poetry, war has an immediate advantage over peace, because war entails action, whereas the experience of peace is an absence, not noticed until not there, like the absence of pain.

War was the first subject to quicken the pen of an epic poet. But the author of The Iliad knew that the scenes of the Trojan hero Hector in battle with Patroclus and later with Achilles would not be so remarkable if there were not also a tender scene of Hector bidding farewell to Andromache, his wife, and their baby boy, who is scared of daddy’s helmet. Epic poets have followed Homer’s lead, widening the scope of war inevitably to include peace—whether peace be construed as the absence of hostilities or as something positive in its own right.

In book XVIII of The Iliad, Homer describes the shield of Achilles that the lame god Hephaistos has fashioned for him. The shield depicts two cities—one embattled, besieged; the other functional, with a wedding and a court of civil law where disputants can settle their differences without violence. In layers of concentric circles the shield also shows some of the things conspicuously lacking in fields of battle: a vineyard, a herd of cattle, a circle of young men and women dancing, the bounty of the harvest—the fruits of peace.

W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” (1952), one of the strongest poems of his later period, invokes the Homeric precedent to throw into relief the bleakness he sees around him. World War II may have ended in 1945, but Auden’s shield reflects a world dominated by implacable hostility between erstwhile allies. We were at peace, but the supreme metaphor of the era joined winter freeze with military might: the Cold War. On the shield of Achilles, as Auden pictures it in 1952, are “an unintelligible multitude,” a disembodied voice proving “by statistics that some cause was just,” a martyrdom enclosed in barbed wire, a thug wielding a weapon:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept
Or one could weep because another wept.

It is a deeply pessimistic view of human nature.

In his elegy for William Butler Yeats (1939), Auden declared that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The assertion is debatable; exceptions come to mind. But the larger point seems incontestable. Art and even love are powerless against the ruthless use of superior force. Indifference “is the least / We have to fear from man or beast.” [1] A spirited rendition of Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto will not stop the wars, make the old young again, or lower the price of bread. [2] “We must love one another or die”: a noble sentiment, but it will not help you win the war against the Third Reich or the Empire of Japan. [3]

The early Auden might have branded as defeatist some of the things he writes in his later work. During the Spanish Civil War, Auden had written about “the necessary murder,” a phrase he would come to rue, to disown, to revise unsatisfactorily, and to disown again. “Spain, 1937,” the poem containing this offensive phrase, ends with an exhortation to action, for “the time is short and / History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.” In retrospect, this line struck the mature Auden as fundamentally wrong, even wicked, for justice (he came to see) has nothing to do with history or inevitability.

In the years between the “age of anxiety” (Auden, 1946) and the “age of Aquarius” (Hair, 1968), there were few poems of unalloyed joy upon the conclusion of wars that left the populace weary and wounded. The self-consciously public utterance of the time was either a howl or a chant from Allen Ginsberg or perhaps a nervous meditation punctuated with creepy imagery, as in Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” in which a grandfather clock ticks away the seconds and “We are like a lot of wild / spiders crying together, / but without tears.”


In American history, poetry attended and assisted the first wars of the republic. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” memorized by a generation of schoolchildren, praised the American Revolution, which fired “the shot heard round the world.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow contributed “Paul Revere’s Ride” to the legends of patriotic heroism. In 1830, “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the jurist) saved a frigate that had done noble service in the War of 1812—it had been scheduled for dismantling, but that was before Holmes praised the “meteor of the ocean air.”

What Herman Melville calls “the meteor of the war”—the Civil War—evokes a tone either elegiac or sinister from a poet of great gifts better known for his novels. Melville communicates the onset of war, the triumph of “Nature’s dark side,” in such poems as “Misgivings” and “Ball’s Bluff.” When he witnesses a parade of young soldiers, the impulse not to cheer but to mourn seizes him: “Life throbbed so strong, / How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime / Would come to thin their shining throng? / Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.” [4] But the soldiers’ footfalls die away, and the war gives us the hush of a battlefield just after the battle (“Shiloh”) or the “Atheist roar of riot” when mobs in New York City protested the draft and lynched black men (“The House-Top”).When we read Lincoln’s oratory we are lifted in spirit. When we read Melville on this bloodiest conflict in our history, we come face to face with the possibility that some cherished principles are merely coins with no gold backing them up. The notion that “Man is naturally good” does not survive long in Melville’s universe.

Walt Whitman embodied in his verse—and in the self that he fashioned—the American bard as Emerson had envisaged him in his essay “The Poet.” Walter Whitman, journeyman printer and sometime newspaperman, became in his poetry “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos,” who is as independent of the English verse-making tradition as of literary language altogether. In the Civil War, Whitman worked as a nurse and solace-giver to soldiers, adopting the role of “Wound-Dresser” in his poetry. Just as Lincoln intended his speeches to salve wounds, so did Whitman, most sublimely in his elegy for the fallen leader, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” proof that it is possible to write great poetry under the pressure of a public occasion.

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman celebrated the self even as he described its dissolution and reconstitution in the other. If the atoms of the self were immortal, then, if he can trust his vision, he is bound to survive his own death. “I stop some where waiting for you,” the poem concludes—in a future where “I” and “you” may remain strangers who exchange longing looks. Though it has its war episodes—about, for example, John Paul Jones’s naval heroics or the battle of the Alamo—“Song of Myself” is essentially a poem of peace, praising in its lists the occupations and daily rounds of men and women. In his Civil War poems, such as the sublime “Reconciliation,” the relation between self and other is replicated between enemy soldiers.  The encounter is its own epiphany. “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself as is dead, / I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near, / Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.”

Of the poets loyal to the Confederacy, Henry Timrod makes the strongest claim on our sympathy.  “Charleston,” his ode to that city, depicts “her” as poised on the brink of battle:  “in the temple of the Fates, / God has inscribed her doom; / And, all untroubled in her faith, she waits / The triumph or the tomb.” The poem is moving in its restraint, and one does not have to stretch far to see in the words a chilling premonition of disaster.

For two or more years during the Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem every day—not programmatically but simply as the effect of an astonishing burst of creative power. Most of her poems lack the specificity of content that steps to the fore in Timrod or in Melville, but there are some in which her exploration of the boundary between life and death has a direct application to the war raging several hundred miles to her south as she wrote. One poem begins: “It feels a shame to be Alive  / When Men so brave – are dead.”

To this reader, the Dickinson poem about war that distinguishes itself most has to do with an ancient battle, that of Thermopylae, where three hundred brave Spartans commanded by the general Leonidas held a narrow pass between mountain and sea, fending off the advance of the massive armies under the command of the Persian king Xerxes. Inevitably the three hundred men were killed, but their deaths accomplished more than the delay of the Persian invasion timetable. On a monument at the site this message appears: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, / that here obedient to their words we lie.”[5] Dickinson’s poem honors the spirit of sacrifice and duty, though she also raises the question of whether love rather than obedience to the law, “a Lure – a Longing,” motivated the unyielding soldiers of Sparta:

“Go tell it” – What a Message –
To whom – is specified –
Not murmur – not endearment –
But simply – we – obeyed –
Obeyed – a Lure – a Longing?
Oh Nature – none of this –
To Law – said sweet Thermopylae
I give my dying Kiss –

[This poem is in the public domain.]

Was the sacrifice of the three hundred primarily an expression of Spartan culture (where soldiers were ordered to “come home with their shields or on them”) or did it express as well a natural instinct in humankind, irrespective of cultural or national differences? Perhaps the most arresting word in the poem is the least expected: the adjective “sweet” to modify the rout at Thermopylae.


In 1883, an auction was held to raise funds to pay for a pedestal for the statue that France had presented as a gift to the young republic. The statue was called “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Emma Lazarus, a noted sonneteer and an early proponent of the prose poem, contributed a sonnet to the efforts of the auctioneers—a sonnet that did more than anything else to articulate the true meaning of the statue.

“The New Colossus” is one exception that comes to mind when I consider Auden’s idea that “poetry makes nothing happen.” It is also a landmark poem of peace. The sonnet defines the object of its contemplation in opposition to the arrogance and pomp of the European past. In particular, the poem seems to respond to the argument in “Ozymandias,” Shelley’s justly famous sonnet, with which it shares certain rhymes. As Lazarus describes it, the statue in New York Harbor is conceived as an alternative to the colossal ruin in the desert, a repudiation of the tyrant’s vain boast in “Ozymandias.” (In Shelley’s poem, these words remain on a piece of a broken statue: statue: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.“) Lazarus bases the Statue of Liberty on a vow, not a boast. The stress is not on the glorification of the self but the rescue of others from oppression, poverty, and fear.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
[This poem is in the public domain.]

“Ozymandias” may stand behind the sonnet, but the title of Lazarus’s poem and its first line suggests a specific statue that Liberty is to replace. The Colossus of Rhodes is “the brazen giant of Greek fame.” The great bronze monument to the sun god, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, crumbled in an earthquake in 226 BC. Not as a warrior with “conquering limbs” but as a woman with “mild eyes” and “silent lips,” the new colossus will stand as tall as the old, honoring not a god but an idea, and it is that idea that will make it a wonder of the modern world.

Americans tend to take the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty for granted, so much so that it sometimes seems as if she has always stood in New York Harbor signaling “world-wide welcome” to immigrants and refugees.  But much of what Lady Liberty stands for came from this poem, which Lazarus wrote after word had reached her of the terrible pogroms in eastern Europe following the assassination of an enlightened Czar in 1881. When President Grover Cleveland dedicated the statue in 1887, Lazarus’s sonnet was not read aloud. But it appeared in 1903 on a plaque and it became widely quoted, sometimes memorized, in the 1930s when America was the last hope for refugees from fascist and communist dictatorships.  In 2003 I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine about “The New Colossus” and nothing about it gave me more pleasure than being able to say that the poem had been left out of previous editions of the Oxford Book of American Poetry but would not be left out next time.


Some feel, not without cause, that all poetry is against war. A friend of mine quipped that nearly all poems could end with the line, “This poem is about war,” and to write a poem worthy of this ending can serve as an effective prompt in a poetry-writing workshop.[6] Stephen Crane captured the “crimson roar” of warfare in the prose fiction of The Red Badge of Courage. In his verse, less effectively, he tried sarcasm: “War is kind.”

It is notoriously difficult to write an anti-war poem. Many poets have an antipathy to political poetry. They argue that the appropriate medium for certain sentiments is not a poem but an op-ed column. When Randall Jarrell read Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” he didn’t bother with the poet’s ideas. “With Imperialism’s face / And the international wrong we have left poetry for editorials,” Jarrell wrote. To liken a poem to an editorial remains an effective put-down.

We who read “September 1, 1939” more generously note the scarcity of important poems written on the day of a colossal event. We have no poem dated “July 14, 1789” ruminating on the fall of the Bastille and its likely consequences. Yet on the day the Germans invaded Poland on a trumped-up pretext and World War II began, Auden sat in a dive on fifty-second street and addressed himself to the event as the culmination of a “dishonest decade” and as the initiation into something unknown, dark, and fearful.

It is true that the poem is flawed. It reaches its rhetorical climax at the end of its penultimate stanza: “We must love one another or die.” No one who believes there is such a thing as evil can imagine for a minute that love will cure the fatal ailment and disarm the homicidal maniac. Nevertheless, the line lives or dies for its rhetorical value and Auden had no business changing it to the more narrowly correct but utterly woeful, “We must love one another and die.” It would be as if, instead of crying “Give me liberty or give me death,” the patriot Patrick Henry had said, “Give me liberty and give me death.” The change from or to and, from choice to resignation, forfeits all the poem’s power. Wahrheit and dichtung, truth and poetry, do not always make proper bedfellows.

Yes, in many ways Auden’s poem on the eve of World War II is (as he himself came to feel) unsatisfactory. But here we are still talking about it, still reading it and wondering about its complexities of argument, its imagery, even its punctuation. And after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, it was to this poem that people turned to with a seeming spontaneity not for the comfort it might give but because it is a work that challenges us and makes its appeal to the moral imagination.


Poets tend to be more in love with love, with ideas, with death, or with the details of their own autobiographies-in-progress than in peace, or health, or well-being as a subject in its own right. Peace in poetry is the necessary but only implied backdrop for all productive human endeavors. I sometimes think of William Carlos Williams as the one modern poet whose collected works seem a hymn to peace as the ground condition that makes all else possible, beauty included. I have wondered whether this may be because he preferred things to ideas. He captures fragments of being: plums in a paper bag or in the ice-box, a young housewife, flowers and farm implements, people at a ballgame, rain, a cat in its stealth, an eight-foot strip of copper, the “rank odor of a passing springtime.” But before I get carried away, Bob Hass reminds me that Williams could also be warlike; he wrote enthusiastically about the cleansing blaze of violence in “Burning the Christmas Greens” (1944).  In the poem, green turns into ash, and we stand there “breathless to be witnesses, / as if we stood / ourselves refreshed among / the shining fauna of that fire.”

Poems of war announce themselves as such; poems of peace do not invariably do so. An exception is Kenneth Koch’s long poem “The Pleasures of Peace,” which he wrote in the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was raging and poets felt a tremendous pressure to write anti-war poems or take part in protest rallies. Many bad antiwar poems were written at this time. Political urgency leads often to poetical triteness. Koch’s solution to the problem was to write a joyful poem not an angry one, radiating pleasure, not scorn or detestation. The madcap poem affirms that the natural state of man is peace, not war. In a last,valedictory stanza, boats sail and apes run and the sun shines for peace, and monkeys climb for peace, and serpents writhe for peace, and “the Alps, Mount Vesuvius, all the really big important mountains / Are rising for peace.” The poem reaches its highest level of pathos when the poet punctuates his closing peroration with a plea, not a prediction: “Surely it won’t be long.”


It used to be thought that that the Great War of 1914-1918 outshone World War II in the quality of poetry written during the hostilities and in their aftermath. Prose in abundance the later conflict certainly produced. Novels and stories based on the Second World War quickly made their mark as printed texts or as movies and plays and even as an exceptional Broadway musical: The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, Home of the Brave, Stalag 17, The Caine Mutiny, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Catch-22, South Pacific. Where were the poems of corresponding importance?

It has taken our culture time to catch up to the lyric poetry that directly and seriously treats the American experience of global war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The poetry of World War II is rich in variety, extraordinary in scope, and it reflects almost incidentally a democratic diversity. Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” that masterpiece of compression, may be the most anthologized combat poem, but it is not alone among works that treat what Richard Eberhart called “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment.” Karl Shapiro shows us soldiers as interchangeable pieces in constant transport in “Troop Train.” The destination is inevitable but the means of transport keep changing on the journey: “Trains lead to ships and ships to death or trains, / And trains to death or trucks, and trucks to death, / Or trucks lead to the march, the march to death, / Or that survival which is all our hope.”  In “The Airman Who Flew over Shakespeare’s England,” Hyam Plutzik stands at an airbase in England, barking instructions on packing bombs in planes even as a voice in the back of his brain addresses himself and the rest of the crew: “Was there not a time when you turned aside to avoid / Crushing a beetle or marring a spider’s web?” Richard Wilbur, a foot soldier in the Allied advance, apprehends, in “First Snow in Alsace,” a sign and wonder amid the devastation: “Absolute snow lies rumpled on / What shellbursts scattered and deranged, / Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.” Anthony Hecht devotes a solemn and magnificent sestina, “The Book of Yolek,” to a death camp in 1942. “You will remember, helplessly, that day, / And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp. / Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too. / His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.”

Gwendolyn Brooks presents the predicament of the “Negro Hero” who serves the nation in a segregated unit: “I helped to save them, them and a part of their democracy. / Even if I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to do that for them.” On the home front, Josephine Miles tells us that “Dec. 7, 1941” was a day like any other: “The little wars still raged, of crutch with stair, / Beard with crumb, buyer with incantation, / Trouble with peace.” Edwin Denby gathers snatches of overheard conversation and subjects them to the rigorous demands of a traditional sonnet in “On the Home Front – 1942”: “Figures can’t lie so it’s your duty to keep control / You’ve got to have people you can trust, look at em smile / That’s why we’re going to win this war, I read a man’s soul / Like a book, intuition, that’s how I made my pile.” The young Elizabeth Bishop writes a compelling poem called “Roosters” describing the habits of that pugnacious species, and Harvard allegorists fifty years on champion it as “the most excellent and complex war poem by a woman poet.”

The poems of World War II were written by civilians and combatants of all denominations. Yvor Winters, the maverick Stanford professor who taught a generation of English majors the virtues of Renaissance and seventeenth-century English poetry, addresses himself “To a Military Rifle 1942.” Here is the opening stanza:

The times come round again;
The private life is small;
And individual men
Are counted not at all.
Now life is general,
And the bewildered Muse,
Thinking what she has done,
Confronts the daily news.

The organization of the United States army, and particularly the class division of officers and enlisted men, gets its due in such poems as Lincoln Kirstein’s bitterly sardonic ballad “Rank,” which begins with a certain jollity that turns gradually and ironically into tragic pathos. The initial quatrain establishes the mood: “Differences between rich and poor, king and queen, / Cat and dog, hot and cold, day and night, now and then, / Are less clearly distinct than all those between / Officers and us: enlisted men.” Kirstein was co-founder with George Balanchine of the New York City ballet. Winfield Townley Scott, a mild-mannered newspaperman in Providence, Rhode Island, presents “The U. S. Sailor with the Japanese Skull.” Scott’s combat veteran carries with him a ghoulish souvenir of victory: “Bald-bare, bone-bare, and ivory yellow: skull / Carried by a thus two-headed U.S. sailor / Who got it from a Japanese solider killed / at Guadalcanal in the ever-present war.” Note the adjective: the war was “ever-present,” it was total in the demands it made of the populace and totally pervasive in the collective consciousness. In “To World War Two,” Kenneth Koch looks back at his time as a private first class in the Philippines and has the effrontery to address the war itself as “you”—as though like a deity it presided over the incomprehensibly vast stage on which puny figures carry their Browning automatic rifles and sleep in foxholes. The war whispers its challenge:

“Go on and win me! Tomorrow you may not be alive,
So do it today!“

Decades go by, and the poet conjuring up the spirit of the war wonders, “How could anyone ever win you?” The second-person point-of-view is sublime here:

I’m glad you ended. I’m glad I didn’t die. Or lose my mind.
As machines make ice
We made dead enemy soldiers, in
Dark jungle alleys, with weapons in our hands
That produced fire and kept going straight through
I was carrying one,
I who had gone about for years as a child
Praying God don’t let there ever be another war
Or if there is, don’t let me be in it. Well, I was in you.
All you cared about was existing and being won.
You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.

I have left unmentioned more than a few worthy poets whose experience of World War II makes a special claim on our attention. But I would conclude with two veterans, recently deceased, whom I had the honor to work with. Louis Simpson, who died on September 14, 2012 at the age of eighty-nine, was an ace student at Columbia University when he interrupted his studies to serve with the 101st Airborne Division in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. A paratrooper, he received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor in battle. He landed at Utah Beach in 1944 with bombers firing overhead. In the Battle of the Bulge he nearly lost his feet to frostbite.“Old Soldier” is a poem from Simpson’s 1959 collection, A Dream of Governors. Here are the last two stanzas:

The guns reverberate; a livid arc
From sky to sky lightens the windowpanes
And all his room. The clock ticks in the dark;
A cool wind stirs the curtains, and it rains.

He lies remembering: “That’s how it was…”
And smiles, and drifts into a youthful sleep
Without care. His life is all he has,
And that is given to the guards to keep.

In 2005 I moderated a poetry reading of Columbia Review alumni, and before the reading, Louis and I talked about an anthology of World War II poems that the Library of America had published.[7] I lifted a glass in his honor. “You were a hero,” I said. Louis thanked me for the compliment, smiled and shook his head. If you want a real hero, he said, “think of Harvey Shapiro.”

I will always cherish the modesty of that moment. It is possible that the authentic note of heroism is the denial of heroism, for I encountered the same smiling modesty when I reported the exchange to Harvey a few months later. Shapiro won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in World War II. He had been a Yale undergraduate when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Between 1943 and 1945 he flew thirty-five missions as a B-17 tailgunner with the 15th Air Force in Italy. “You would fly a mission and then maybe not fly again for two weeks,” he said. Between missions he read and wrote poetry and decided to major in English if the war ever ended. It did, and the G. I. Bill enabled him to complete his studies at Yale. From the experience of war came a passion for words that sustained a lifetime of literary endeavor.

Harvey Shapiro died yesterday, January 7, 2013, at the age of eighty-eight. A long-time Times man, he edited the New York Times Book Review from 1975 to 1983. I wrote a profile of John Ashbery at Harvey’s bidding when he was deputy chief of the New York Times Magazine in 1984. His own best poems were headquartered in New York City, urban observations unadorned with sugared sentiment: “Caught on a side street / in heavy traffic, I said / to the cabbie, I should / have walked. He replied, / I should have been a doctor.” But on the occasion of his death I thought of the anthology of World War II poems he edited, and then I mused on the subject of heroism—a subject, like honor, too little examined and too seldom praised in modern American poetry. This is from “Heroism” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays are poems, perhaps the greatest prose poems in the language: “The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. Poverty is its ornament. It does not need plenty, and can very well abide its loss.” Emerson wrote these words in 1841, but they have lost none of their pertinence. “Times of heroism are generally times of terror, but the day never shines in which this element may not work. The circumstances, we say, are historically somewhat better in this country and at this hour than perhaps ever before. More freedom exists for culture. It will not now run against an axe at the first step out of the beaten track of opinion. But who so is heroic will always find crises to try his edge. Human virtue demands her champions and martyrs, and the trial of persecution always proceeds.” The enemy of culture as Emerson conceives it is public opinion—whether expressed violently (mob rule, mass hysteria) or in one of its milder but still insidious forms (peer pressure, political correctness, received wisdom). In the struggle of culture to free us from indoctrination, the poet remains on the front lines.

Most of the poems named in this piece may be found in The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006).


  1. Auden, “The More Loving One” (1957).
  2. The allusion here is to the text—derived from Samuel Beckett and superimposed on the scherzo movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony— in Luciano Beirio’s “Sinfonia.”
  3. Auden, “September 1, 1939.”
  4. The quoted lines are from “Ball’s Bluff.”
  5. Herodotus, The History, book 7:228. Trans. David Grene. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  6. Jennifer Chang’s poem “Dorothy Wordsworth” in The Best American Poetry 2012 ends with the line: “This is a poem about war.”
  7. Poets of World War II ed. Harvey Shapiro (Library of America, 2003).

Comments (3)

  1. would like to find poem i wrote name of it was Gods special gift to us was published in a coffee table book back in 2012

    • Dear Ms. Ward,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  2. Thanks for highlighting Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” as a poem that refutes Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen” and is a remarkable poem of peace. Here is a project amplifying that idea.

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