‘Another Time’ is a poem, initially untitled when it was first published in 1940, by the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden (1907-73). Like many of Auden’s greatest poems, ‘Another Time’ is at once disarmingly clear in its language and hauntingly elusive in its meaning. Before we offer some words of analysis, it might help to read the poem, which is available here.
‘Another Time’: the (eventual) title that Auden gave to this poem, which initially was untitled other than with its opening line (‘For us like any other fugitive’), gives a clue to the poem’s subject, as does the word ‘fugitive’ in that opening line. The poem is, first and foremost, about people who fly away from the present moment in search of meaningful allegiances to national or political causes, but who are cheating themselves because the truth is that ‘It is today in which we live.’
However, as Auden continues, the problem is that many people would rather forget the here and now: they ‘try to say Not Now’, attempting to get away from the reality with which their lives, whether they like it or not, are bound up. They have lost their sense of individual purpose and would rather lose themselves in a past that has become irrelevant to the modern age.
In the third stanza, Auden elaborates on this point: these people bow in an old-fashioned act of reverence to a flag, observing the ceremony of paying homage to their country, giving credence to an outdated concept of nationalism. They are consumed, as the ‘ancients’ were centuries ago, with the idea of tribalism, of belonging or not belonging (things are either ‘Mine’ or they are ‘His’, or ‘Ours’ or ‘Theirs’: they are never shared, or pluralist).
Things become a little knottier and more enigmatic in the fourth stanza, as Auden casts his language in the subjunctive mode of ‘Just as ifs’. The gist, though, is that such people are acting as if ‘time’ is theirs to be ordered about and possessed by them, as if they could ‘will’ it to do their bidding. But then the second half of the stanza becomes even trickier, with another ‘Just as if’ statement which implies, through the subjunctive, that Auden thinks these people are not actually wrong: ‘Just as if they were wrong’ suggests, after all, that they aren’t wrong after all.
One way to analyse these two lines is to interpret them as ironic, but this seems unconvincing. A more productive avenue, however, might be to decide that Auden means exactly what he says: that these people, in not wishing to belong to the here-and-now, are actually oddly right, because the here-and-now doesn’t want their petty and narrow-minded nationalism and outdated attitudes.
The final stanza of ‘Another Time’ sees Auden acknowledging, with characteristic sympathy, the plight of these people: they die lonely and alone, feeling as though they are out of sync with their time, and they ‘die of grief’ because the world is not the world they wish to live in. But the second half of this final stanza still observes that the world these people wish to will back into existence is ‘a lie’, and no one has yet liked a lie. This brings us to the final line of the poem, which provides its title: ‘Another time has other lives to live.’
That final line at once personifies time (although Auden retains the lower-case on ‘time’, refusing to give us some hackneyed old idea of Old Father Time), suggesting that it is too busy living its own life somewhere else; but the line also hints at all those ‘lives’, all those people, especially younger more pluralist and internationalist people, who want to move away from outmoded ideas of nationhood and to a new way of thinking about citizenship and belonging. Another time, in this analysis of the line, has lots of ‘other lives’ it needs to make ‘live’. Of course, Auden’s lines are crisp and succinct where any analysis or (attempted) paraphrase of them must be bloated and convoluted, making a mockery of his syntax. But that’s the beauty of poetry: it doesn’t obey the usual rules of language and sentence structure. As T. S. Eliot observed, verse is its own system of punctuation.
Nevertheless, a few puzzling things about ‘Another Time’ remain. For instance, that penultimate line: ‘No one has yet believed or liked a lie’. This seems like an odd thing for the poet who, elsewhere, wrote about Hitler’s Germany that ‘we have seen a myriad faces / Ecstatic from one lie’. Hitler’s idea of nationalism was a ‘lie’ that millions of Germans had been conned into believing, so how could Auden have written, just a few years later, that nobody has ever believed a lie? Is there an unspoken word ‘No one [decent] has yet believed or liked a lie’? Or is he questioning whether anyone truly believes such ideas – that those who bow reverently to a flag may tell themselves they believe in their country, but they know deep down that it’s not true, like a Christian with very shaky faith? This is not an easy question to answer, and remains perhaps the most troubling aspect of Auden’s poem.
To conclude on firmer ground, we might observe the curious verse form Auden uses for ‘Another Time’. The poem is written in quatrains throughout: so far, so consistent. But although the first stanza is rhymed abba (albeit with half-rhyme or pararhyme on ‘number’ and ‘remember’), the next three stanzas are all in rhyming couplets: aabb. However, we return to the enclosed or ‘envelope’ rhyme for the concluding stanza (with ‘grief’ and ‘live’ being examples of pararhyme this time).
Essentially, this means that the two stanzas which bookend the poem are envelope rhyme, and the whole poem is a sort of massive envelope, with the same palindromic structure being used for the whole poem as well as for these individual two stanzas. There’s a sense of deflation and disappointment, and even – thanks to the abba stanza’s association with Tennyson’s In Memoriam – an elegiac air to them. For a poem like ‘Another Time’, about the death of an old way of living and believing, this is especially apt.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.