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  • From Error to Terror:The Romantic Inheritance in W. H. Auden's "In Time of War"
  • Frederik Van Dam

In 1937, Faber and Faber commissioned W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood to write a travel book about Asia as a sequel to Letters from Iceland (1937), which Auden had co-authored with Louis MacNeice. While the journey to the North had been driven by cultural and personal inclinations, the decision to visit the East was motivated by a public and political purpose. After his return from Iceland in late 1936, Auden had written to E. R. Dodds that he was "not one of those who believe that poetry need or even should be directly political." At the same time, he recognized that "the poet must have direct knowledge of the major political events" (Mendelson 2017: 183). In his quest for such direct knowledge, Auden took part in the Spanish Civil War but failed to translate his experience into poetry.1 The second Sino-Japanese War offered a chance to atone for this failure: in China, he said, "we shall have a war of our own" (Isherwood 289).

At first, this conflict proved elusive. Auden was continually delayed in his attempts to visit the front. Eventually he did come close enough to witness the destruction and danger that people on the ground were facing. The germ of his sentiments can be glimpsed in a recently discovered newspaper article for the Birmingham Gazette (Mendelson 2019), in which he discusses the plight of missionaries, with particular attention [End Page 151] to the importance of the missions for the victims of air-raids: "outside their hospitals there are few surgical instruments and hardly any of the portable X-ray sets so vitally necessary in searching for buried shell-splinters and bullets" (Auden 1938: 8). The hospitals themselves were not safe from air-raids, Auden writes, even though their roofs were marked in national colors. In response, missions of various kinds made common cause:

In the past, no doubt, there have been sectarian bickerings, convertsnatchings, absurd parochial rivalries. But in the face of a common danger, Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists, Italian Catholics and Scotch Nonconformists have achieved a measure of cooperation and mutual tolerance which puts their co-religionists in Europe and America to shame.

(Auden 1938: 8)

In spite of the catastrophe caused by aerial bombing, so Auden suggests, missionaries developed a capacity to reconcile their differences. This realization, I argue, became the crux of Auden's views on the second Sino-Japanese War as articulated in "In Time of War," a sonnet sequence which he wrote in 1938 and published in 1939.

According to Edward Mendelson, "In Time of War" is "Auden's most profound and audacious poem of the 1930s, perhaps the greatest English poem of the decade" (2017: 310). The challenge that the sonnets present was already apparent at the time of publication. The sonnets are difficult to read, Lincoln Kirstein warned, "since the thought they embody is hard for all of us to comprehend. Once they are understood, they make it even more difficult to proceed with that understanding in us" (Haffenden 299). Even so, the sequence itself has not received the same amount of critical scrutiny as contemporary war poems such as "Spain" (1937) or "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939). Instead of confronting the thought that informs the sonnets, critics have tended to focus on the function of the sequence within Journey to a War (1939), the travel book in which they first appeared, and which Auden co-authored with Isherwood. This book consists of a number of introductory sonnets, a travel-diary, a series of sixty-five photographs, the sonnet sequence, and a verse commentary.2 By thus layering different genres and media, Journey to a War creates [End Page 152] multiple alternative pathways.3 Like a montage, the book seems to ask the reader to assemble a collection of disparate moments in a meaningful relation, thus creating an elongated moment (as opposed to a narrative continuum). The expectation of coherence is ultimately thwarted, however, and replaced "with a paratactically dispersive strategy," characteristic of collage (Coats 177). Reading "In Time of War" as a constitutive...