Friday, December 06, 2002

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream;

Out of the mirror they stare,

Imperialism’s face

And the international wrong.
Since I started an Auden trip earlier this week, I’m revisiting some of my favourite poems by him and getting embroiled once more in this fascinating debate. The quote above is from September 1, 1939 and there are two lines later on that originally read “We must love one another or die.” After WWII, he changed the line to “We must love one another and die,” which sparks the literary debate of a writer’s right to edit, comment and reflect on history within existing work and whether or not a completed work can or should be changed and whether or not the altered work can replace the original or if it should exist as “the altered version” alongside it.

Personally, once I’ve written something, it stays exactly as it is, forever. Editing and tidying up some text is fine, but I rarely, if ever, make changes to the meaning and the intent: if I want to change meaning and intent, I’ll start from the top and write something new. I’d rather have fifty thousand versions of the same thing than just one which doesn’t hint at all at the processes, footnotes, change of heart and change of mind behind it.

Also, this poem has stuck in my mind since we did a class on it at Uni because of the heartbreaking sadness the change in the line suggested. At the outbreak of war – we must love one another or die trying, we must love one another or not have lived at all. But after the war, the notion has changed and we must love another and die anyway. How horrible to see Auden reneging on what was once a desperately hopeful idea and to know what he experienced to change his mind so drastically, so cynically, so pessimistically. I hope none of us ever have to make revisions such as this in our writing, in our thoughts, in our time.

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