Auden, Orwell and Murder

On Tuesday we talked about George Orwell’s criticism of Auden’s lines in  ‘Spain’ (1937):

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder

george-orwellFor Orwell, Auden can speak of murder as necessary “because he has never committed a murder, perhaps never had one of his friends murdered, possibly never even seen a murdered man’s corpse.” He goes on:

Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder.  To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person.  The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation,’ ‘elimination,’ or some other soothing phrase. […] Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

w-h-audenAuden replied:

I was not excusing totalitarian crimes but only trying to say what, surely, every decent person thinks if he finds himself unable to adopt the absolute pacifist solution. (1) To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else. (2) In a war, the members of two rival groups try to murder the opponents. (3) If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.

But later, Auden would revise the lines Orwell criticized, from

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder


To-day the inevitable increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder.

There’s a good article by T.R. Healy with more information about the argument between Auden and Orwell here, a useful essay on Auden and his relationship to Yeats here, and a blog on Auden’s words about poetry surviving only “in the valley of its making” here.

We had quite a lively discussion of the issues this debate raised in class, although only a few of you contributed actively to it. I’d be interested to know what the rest of you think – is Orwell right, or is Auden? Or is there another way? And does poetry only survive “in the valley of its making”, as Auden suggests in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’? Thoughts below please!


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9 Responses to Auden, Orwell and Murder

  1. unalemre29 says:

    I would say “death is inevitable, murder is murder”. One can choose to live or die, but the lives of people are unfortunately at the expense of others ,most of the time. Orwell is right about his remarks that “because he[Auden] has never committed a murder, perhaps never had one of his friends murdered, possibly never even seen a murdered man’s corpse”. Yet Orwell forgets or simply ignores the fact that he was in Spain for some time for ‘bringing peace’ there, whatever his duty was there. In terms of poetry’s function, I would say it is not any different from any other prose. The mind of a human being can be shaped by anything. Some people read and imitate, some question what they read, some forget what they read, some understand things but do not care. The list can be widened. The remark about poetry, that it is only effective “in the valley of its making”, I think, is inherited by the hardships it had as a literary from. Almost every poetic movement of starts with a manifestation (Wordsworth’s ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ or Ezra Pound’s ‘On Imagism, for instance). Since poetry has always been hard to understand, it only appealed to a certain group of people (even the audience of the romantic movement). Therefore, I believe poetry’s function will always be the centre of discussion regarding its form.

  2. In my view, there is difference between ‘murder’ and ‘kill’ , which cannot be ignored in this discussion. While ‘murder’ is deliberate, intended or planned, ‘kill’ may mean bringing an end to one’s life out of will depending on the circumstances. So, if we look at the situation from Orwell’s perspective , we can understand that he prefers the word ‘kill’ if someone uses the adjective ‘necessary’ before that word because necessary kill is possible in the case of a war. Orwell served as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War, and he saw many murdered men . The fact of murdered man was difficult for him to accept. That’s why, ‘necessary murder’ seems a quite heavy word to him. What Hitler did was ‘murder’ , because it was intended and planned. Hitler believed that Jews was the cause of their misery, and while jews had satisfactory life standards, Germans suffered in their country. Hitler regarded this as ‘necessary murder’. However, Auden is also right in his defense , because I think that he used the word ‘necessary’ to make the argument ironic or sarcastic. He mocks or despises the mentality which thinks that murder is necessary. But , at the same time I get the sense that he uses the word ‘murder’ and ‘kill’ in the same meaning. His definition “To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else” shows that he does not mind the difference between ‘murder’ and ‘kill’ , so Orwell’s attack seems too much fierce since Auden does not claim the necessity of a planned, intended murder in the war. But if we care about the difference between the words, we can still understand why Orwell reacted so fiercely. About Auden’s change from ‘the necessary murder’ into ‘the fact of murder’ shows that he does not revise it just by considering Orwell’s statements. Because, the word ‘murder’ is still there, but ‘necessary’ is eliminated, which is a correct revision from my point of view, because it is open to a disagreeable interpretation or discussion. Someone could think that Auden has the same bloody view as Hitler does. So, poetry can be a very influential tool in affecting minds which are ready to have a triggering moment to take action or to believe in something. The statement “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making” is an ironic one. Poetry has a huge power to transform ‘nothing’ into something to happen. If poetry deals with politics as Auden’s poetry does, then it needs more attention. The word ‘necessary’ could be interpreted in an undesired way, and its effects would be unexpected or unacceptable.

  3. bmk20800440 says:

    Our current understanding of the world as a dichotomous entity divided between opposing forced such as improved/unimproved, civilized/uncivilized, or even good/evil, is the greatest obstacle before any real improvement that we are capable of achieving. If our faculty of improvement is as great as we boast, we human beings must prove this by living differently from savage animals that live in packs and at times attack other packs or have internal conflicts for power inside the pack, and so forth. However, if the only proof we can present for the greatness of our physical and mental faculties is a heap of destructive weapons (I do not use the word “weapons” only in the physical sense, but rather as an umbrella term for all instruments of destruction), then Rousseau is right in claiming that “the man, who first made himself clothes and built himself a cabin supplied himself with things which he did not much want, since he had lived without them till then and why should he not have been able to support in his riper years, the same kind of life, which he had supported from his infancy?” And indeed, if human beings can change their way of living so radically – from trees to land, from nomadic culture to agriculture, etc. – and if they are really capable of improvement, then their improvement should take a turn for the better, not for the destruction of themselves, their fellow human beings, the earth that they inhabit and pretty much everything else in it. If a shift is to occur in our way of living, this should be a shift from our current savagery to what we could really call civilization. Instead of trying to justify killing, which is always murder, for what is rightful killing to one person or ideology is savage murder to another, human beings need to achieve balance and cooperation among themselves and stop seeing and creating elements and signs of enmity all around.

  4. Instead of trying to justify killing or murder, people need to think about what he is doing or is it ethical or not?

  5. b20801711y says:

    I think George Orwell is right about some of his statements; however, he disregards his aim for his presence in Spain: bringing welfare etc. If I consider his poetry’s mission, I can say that it is effective in many ways but at the same time it isn’t something very innovative.

  6. artun352 says:

    I do not agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives /In the valley of its making” and have no effect on the world affairs, I think everything that has the power to influence human mind also has the power and authority to be affective in changing the world events. It can be a movie, poem or novel. Poetry has always been and always will be influential as an agent of political change because it starts with changing and shaping people’s perception of life, ideas and thus actions.
    Poetry can be used as the voice of not only one man but a nation, it encourages the people who hold the same belief or idea that is supported in the poem to come together and make their voice heard and instigate them to protest. I would like to give an example to this. In 2008, when a 16 years old Greek boy was shot by the police causing a large scale uprising among the citizens, a stanza from a renown Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet’s political poem “Kerem Gibi” was affectively used on the leaflets that has called people to take part in protests and change the political order. The poem runs;

    If I do not burn
    If you do not burn
    If we do not burn
    How will darkness come to light?
    (Nazim Hikmet, “Like Kerem”)
    As we can see poetry can easily be used as a tool of political resistance and an agent of change in society. It does not survive only “in the valley of its making” but it crosses boundaries and binds people together under the umbrella of common beliefs and ideas.
    However if we go into deeper analysis of Auden’s lines, it provides a second reading to the poem that does not underestimates the influence of poetry but on the contrary empowers it. “poetry makes nothing happen” can be interpreted as turning “nothingness” into something, a “happening” and it has the power to create a world of its own in which it can survive and entertain its authority “ It survives in the valley of its making”.

  7. If only world was such a place that its dominant inhabitants, which is us, were able to apply the humane thoughts brought forward by Auden in their everyday lives, their many ways of education, their differences of opinion, and their politics. Alas, we are of a selfish nature, always set to think about the good of oneself first, and, if brought up properly, the good of others second. Thus, there comes times when the most unspeakable evil gets commited in such a regular basis that justifying it becomes as simple as vilifying it. However, us not being simple creatures by nature renders it impossible to simplify as critical an act as murder, whether towards justifying it or vilifying it. In that sense, I think Orwell is a bit more on the righteous side in that debate (although Auden probably would have hated me for using that word). Then again, for the same reasons I’ve mentioned above, it would be illogical, and even childishly emotional, to call one side right and one wrong in such a debate. Death is perhaps the starkest truth of life, and murder perhaps the starkest aspect of it, and thus looking at it from black or white would be fruitless, as its color is gray.

  8. I don’t like it when poets yield to criticism or fear and change their poems. I believe it drives the poem away from its natural state, and makes it lose its effect. I can’t really make sense of the criticism. Does Orwell think only people that have seen murder are authorized to write about them or use the word? He says that even Hitler uses more soothing words… Maybe it is the people who have seen murder that can’t dare use it in their work or in their speech. Also Orwell has to face the reality that it is usually what a pacifist sees in war. The pacifist doesn’t consist of one person, it’s a whole part of society that has a conception of war and murder but hasn’t had any experience with it, and it is a point of view that Auden here presents us with. I believe Orwell (and people who think alike) needs to take this into consideration before criticizing someone’s poem. Also, a short comment on the poetry surviving in the valley of its making, I both agree and disagree with this. I believe that poetry can be a strong way of expressing feelings and thoughts, and it has the potential to reach masses, and people that don’t care much about poetry. But when you put this down into a percentage, it looks as if poetry mostly reaches a small group of people.

  9. I have to say that I agree with both of them on certain points. The first is, “To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else”. I also believe that a human being killing another is always a murderer no matter where, when or why he does it. For me, this fact creates the possibility of “necessary murder”. We can give the Turkish War of Independence as an example. It was necessary for the Turkish to fight a war to keep their independence. However, a war is still an act of murder. So, it was a “necessary murder”. However, I also agree with Orwell that, “I would not speak so lightly of murder. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person”. So, to me such a light use of “necessary murder” sounds like an unseccesful propoganda of war or a call to arms, which in my opinion is not an appropriate approact to take in poetry.

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