So huge a phallic triumph’: Why Apollo had little appeal for Auden


News anchor Walter Cronkite holds up an early edition of next day’s The New York Times during CBS’s Apollo 11 telecast, July 20, 1969 PHOTO/CBS via Getty Images

In 1969, W.H. Auden wrote a skeptical poem about the moon landing after he had declined a request to write a celebratory one.

As Apollo 11 was heading for the moon, the editors of The New York Times decided to celebrate the landing, scheduled for a few days later, by printing a poem about it on the front page. In an article twenty years later, A.M. Rosenthal, then the managing editor, recalled the editors’ thinking:

What the poet wrote would count most, but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all us.

Rosenthal continued, “We called one poet who just did not think much of the moon or us.” Rosenthal didn’t name names, but it was widely known in literary New York that the uncooperative poet was Auden. Someone at the Times, possibly Rosenthal, had offered to commission him to write a poem about the meaning of the event, and Auden had replied that it would have no meaning at all.

Rosenthal, who had ideas of his own about literary rankings, recalled that the Times “then decided to reach higher for someone with more zest in his soul—for Archibald MacLeish, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes.” MacLeish provided a suitable amalgam of fluff and bombast (“dazzle of silver in our leaves… and we have touched you!…  O, a meaning!”) and the Times printed it on the front page on July 21, 1969—after warning MacLeish that he might be called upon to rewrite the poem at the last minute if the landing should be delayed until after press time.

The New York Times was not alone in asking Auden to pontificate on the event. A columnist in The Times of London reported on the day of the landing: “W.H. Auden was invited to join a party discussing the moral, historical, and philosophical implications of the moon-landing on Panorama [a current-affairs program on BBC television] tonight but replied that the event had no such implications whatsoever.”

Having declined a commission from The New York Times, Auden seems to have decided to write a poem about the event after all, but not one that the Times would have wanted. By the middle of August, he had finished “Moon Landing” and sent it to The New Yorker, which published it on September 6. This is the slightly revised text that Auden included in his collection Epistle to a Godson in 1972:

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
            it would not have occurred to women
            to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
            hurrah the deed, although the motives
            that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
            with objects than lives, and more facile
            at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
            still don’t fit us exactly, modern
            only in this—our lack of decorum.

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
            was excused the insult of having
            his valor covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
            and was not charmed: give me a watered
            lively garden, remote from blatherers

about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
            glories, where to die has a meaning,
            and no engine can shift my perspective.

Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
            Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
            still visits my Austrian several

with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
            an ugly finish, Irreverence
            is a greater oaf than Superstition.

Our apparatniks will continue makin
the usual squalid mess called History:
            all we can pray for is that artists,
            chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

The New York Review of Books for more

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