The youngest drummer waits with gun and code word ready, alert to orders and aware of his rank. He knows all the stories of peacetime just like the oldest soldier does. There is the one about the “tall white gods” who embark from their boat, skilled in copper and giving us our feast days; this was before the islands went under the sea, and when the weather was peaceful and there was a wishing well in each garden and “love came easy.”
We are all certain of what happened, but our knowledge comes not from the official records or from the agent who came back to camp. The pillar dug from the desert recorded the sack of the city. All the agent said as he collapsed was, “Sorry! They got me!”
These gods once lived here but no longer do. We are awake after the official lights-out, and one recruit asks, “Who told you this?” but he is hushed by a veteran who tells him to go to sleep. He turns over and closes his eyes. Behind his lids he sees the bright sun over a pasture, which is “our hope.” Then, though, someone wakes him, and there is a changing of the guard. The quarrel was always before this boy’s time, and the aggressor is not even anyone he knows.
His childish awareness was from our world. When he was five he jumped around like a tiger, and his mother told him to pray for his father, who was fighting far away. One time he fell off a horse, and his brother mocked him for being like a girl. Now, it is parade time before the Cathedral to receive the bishop’s blessing. We are to file in like choir boys and stand shouting loudly that we fought the enemy off and that they “fought against God!”
Miles away in the limestone they all gather with their horses. A “scarecrow prophet” foresees our judgment, and there is a “bitter psalm caught by the gale from the rocks.” What have we done to create the quiet, war-stricken captain who stands before them, who hears them claim they will fight until they meet their Lord?
Wrath learned every trick from guerilla warfare (night raids, feints), and Envy was their lying pamphleteer, an “expert impersonator and linguist.” Gluttony was stoic and lived alone. Acedia (apathy) had stamina. Lust told his fuses he wanted to meet Love here and “hug her to death.”
These are all the faces we have been looking for. We thought we saw them behind a door and put our arms around their necks and looked into their eyes; we discovered we were unlucky. Some we have seen before, like the girl who never came back, or the anxious banker who left one morning with a suitcase. They tell us of things done on the frontier and how to get to the tower when deprived of sleep. Their code is “Death to the squealer.” We know they are brave, although when they are mentioned in our newspapers, “brave” is in quotes.
Back at our lines it is not safe. There are no passports, and the area is closed. Work has ceased at the power-house. Leave is canceled, and we are off to the North. We will learn where we are supposed to attack, and we will “lie out there” in the snow.
“Ode V,” which is also often referred to by its first line since Auden wrote six odes together, is part of his critically acclaimed but abstruse book of poetry called The Orators, published in 1932. For many decades critics spoke of the importance of the work but also of how flummoxed they were upon reading it. Auden’s own gnomic tendencies, the double perspective he uses, the astonishing variety of tone and style, and the multiplicity of intellectual ideas stemming from Freud, Homer Lane, Georg Groddeck, and D.H. Lawrence have contributed to the work’s reputation as difficult. The Orators contains three books: “The Initiates,” “Journal of an Airman,” and the six odes.
The odes are related by a schoolmaster who suffers from a psychological wound. He looks to his students for salvation. His and his generation’s chance for action having passed, he can only look to future generations. The fifth ode was deemed, “Which Side Am I Supposed to Be On?” in 1945. It is concerned with psychic warfare and is undeniably bleak.
The poem begins with a young soldier waiting with his fellow troops in the grass for an ambush. He reflects on England’s distant past in which the nation was healthy and glorious, with “tall white gods” and “An open wishing-well in every garden.” Life was simple and natural, and “love came easy.” W.H. Sellers, whose interpretation of the poem is one of the most valuable critical analyses available, writes that the opposing army “is made up of the societal ills that man has brought into being through the mechanization of his spirit.” It is clear as the poem proceeds that this is not simply a tale of war, however; there is something deeper at work, since the enemy troops include Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Acedia. Communication between the two sides has been severed; there is no way to restore the peace.
The veteran in the poem who is speaking seems to believe that love is neither possible nor valuable. Sellers writes that from this perspective, “fear and hatred, not love, must govern man’s thinking and action.” The soldiers are urged to return back to their lines, for “it is unsafe there, / Passports are issued no longer; that area is closed.” If you think “You can stroll across for a smoke and a chat any evening,” you are wrong, the veteran argues.
At the end of the poem a showdown is about to occur. The soldiers are off to the North and will see in the morning what they are to attack, in what land “We shall lie out there.” Sellers concludes that the poem is about “the worsening of man’s psychic wounds to the final point of utter self-destruction. Blind to all warnings, modern man obsessively resists all thoughts of change and plunges ahead to destroy an Enemy who is, in reality, part of himself.” The critic John R. Boly agrees, arguing that “new recruits are merely fighting against a projected image of themselves, the seven deadly sins” and that the ode is thus a “plea to the young for caution and restraint in action.”