Tuesday, September 1, 2020

September 1, 1939

 September 1, 1939

By W. H. Auden - 1907-1973


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.


"September 1, 1939," as its title signals, was written by W.H. Auden in the days immediately following Germany's invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Auden had left his native England and moved to New York City some nine months earlier, and the famous opening lines of the poem are rooted in the dingy geography of his new home.


This poem achieved great resonance after the events of September 11, 2001—it was widely reproduced, recited on NPR, and interpreted with a link to the tragic events of that day. But it captured Auden’s reaction to the outbreak of World War II. The poem expresses anger and sadness towards those events, and it questions the historical and mass psychological process that led to the war. It focuses on the political psychosis of the German people, echoing a few lines of Nietzsche ("Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad"). It then turns to the effect that this war will have on the world and its people, again with psychological overtones.


The poem was first published on 18 October 1939 in the American magazine, the New Republic. Auden had arrived in New York with his friend and fellow writer Christopher Isherwood. The two men quickly established themselves on the US literary scene: schmoozing, partying, making contact with editors, and undertaking speaking and lecturing engagements. In April 1939, Auden had met an 18-year-old, Chester Kallman, 14 years his junior, who was to become his life partner: in the new world, Auden was making a new life for himself. Back in Europe, meanwhile, the storm clouds were gathering.


W. H. Auden wrote the poem while visiting the father of his lover Kallman in New Jersey. Dorothy Farnan, Kallman's father's second wife, in her biography Auden in Love (1984), wrote that it was written in the Dizzy Club, an alleged gay bar in New York City, as if the statement in the first two lines, "I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street," were literal fact and not conventional poetic fiction (she had not met Kallman or Auden at the time). Auden later clarified that the poem’s beginning in Manhattan, “in one of the dives on Fifty-second Street,” was, in fact, the Dizzy Club at 62 West 52nd Street.


Auden hated the poem and believed it to be of poor quality. Despite this, the poem became famous and widely popular. E. M. Forster wrote, "Because he once wrote 'We must love one another or die' he can command me to follow him" (Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951). Soon after writing the poem, Auden began to turn away from it, apparently because he found it flattering to himself and his readers. In 1957, he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, "Between you and me, I loathe that poem" (quoted in Edward Mendelson, Later Auden). He resolved to omit it from his further collections, and it did not appear in his 1966 Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957.


In the mid-1950s, Auden began to refuse permission to editors who asked to reprint the poem in anthologies. In 1955, he allowed Oscar Williams to include it complete in The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse but altered the most famous line to read, "We must love one another and die." Later, he allowed the poem to be reprinted only once, in a Penguin Books anthology Poetry of the Thirties (1964), with a note saying about this and four other early poems, "Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written."

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