September 1, 1939

W-H-Auden-people-page
W.H. Auden (1907 – 1973).  Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Sometime after Germany invaded Poland and ignited the deadliest military conflict in history, W.H. Auden penned his  poem, “September 1, 1939”; it was published in The New Republic‘s issue of October 18, 1939.  I post it today not only to commemorate the anniversary, but to acknowledge that the poem, with its “considerations of history, politics, human weakness and depravity, and existential anxiety”, continues to resonate–for me, anyway–loudly in the here and now.

Ian Sansom, who last year published what he called ‘a biography’ of the poem, notes that it’s a work “that readers return to at times of personal and national crisis.” After 9/11, for example, Auden’s poem, with its mentions of New York, September and ‘the unmentionable odour of death’, seemed to speak to the moment and was widely quoted and reprinted.  (Another eerie coincidence: the poem is comprised of 9 stanzas of 11 lines each).

Interestingly, it’s a poem that Auden himself later disowned, even requesting that it not be included in anthologies of his work.

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden wrote, “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient. I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive.”

In the weeks to come, I refuse to be deceived, and will do my best to keep ‘an affirming flame’ alight.


Trivia tidbit x 3:

  • Those familiar with any of Auden’s poems are most likely to know “Funeral Blues”, recited by John Hannah in Four Weddings And A Funeral.
  • Multi-talented funny lady Lily Tomlin was born on September 1, 1939.
  • Danzig, referred to in the New York Times headline at the top of the post, is present day Gdansk.

4 comments

  • What a perceptive and talented writing all-rounder was WH Auden. As an undergraduate, poetry was the literary form I struggled most with (looking back, impatience was probably my problem; now it is lack of application) but somehow Auden touched something in me, particularly “Musée des Beaux Arts”. I wonder what he rejected in September 1, 1939?
    More human… always a good thing… more difficult to deceive… I fervently hope so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vince, I just added two updates to the post. First, I linked to Ian Sansom’s book about the poem; the cover image seems very apt…I can imagine it’s how the city might have looked on the day that Auden sat in the 52nd Street dive and started writing the poem. (Second, for those who might not have known it, I added the trivia tidbit that Danzig is present day Gdansk…)

      Like

  • Have long enjoyed Auden. This especially touching poem was discussed a year or two ago by our FCCOL Poetry group. Thanks for once again bringing it to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

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