September 1, 1939
September 1, 1939
W. H. AUDEN
W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" is a poem about war and the futility of war. The title refers to the date that Germany crossed the border to invade Poland, an act of aggression that escalated in the following days to draw many countries allied with one side or the other into the fighting, quickly leading to the start of the Second World War.
The poem was first published on October 18, 1939, in the New Republic. It was then included in Auden's 1940 collection, Another Time. Soon after that, though, Auden disavowed it. The uplifting tone that dominates the last two stanzas seemed to him too trite and self-congratulatory for the serious issues raised earlier.
Despite Auden's later regret, however, this poem has struck a chord of admiration with generations of readers. It was particularly influential in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when it was circulated on the internet and read aloud in public. The poem's views of violence and reprisal seemed to apply accurately to the attacks sixty years later, especially since the poem takes place in New York City and focuses on the modern obsession with tall buildings. In truth, as the poem itself points out, the urges for attack, revenge, and complacency have been woven into the fabric of Western society since ancient times.
Because of Auden's personal dislike for this poem, it was not included in his Collected Poems, and was still left out of the 2007 edition of that
book. It can be found in the 1990 volume W. H. Auden: Selected Poems, which was revised and expanded in 2007 for the 100th anniversary of Auden's birth.
Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in the industrial town of York, England, where he grew up. His father was a physician and his mother was a nurse, and from them he received an interest in engineering and science that, with his natural intelligence, enabled him to go to Oxford University on a scholarship. While there, though, he started writing poetry, which quickly became his major occupation. He became associated with other poets, called "the Auden Group," that included writers who were to also go on to literary fame, such as Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. His first major dramatic work, "Paid on Both Sides: A Charade," was accepted for publication by T. S. Eliot in Criterion while Auden was still at Oxford. It was published in 1930. Eliot's influence also led to a book-length collection of Auden's poetry later that year.
Auden went to Berlin for eighteen months after graduating from Oxford, and then he settled in to teaching in England for the next five years. In 1935, he married Erika Mann, the daughter of the German writer Thomas Mann. Auden was homosexual, and this marriage was one of convenience, to enable Erika Mann to obtain an English passport and flee the rising turmoil in Germany.
Auden traveled extensively from 1936 to 1939, serving as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War and covering the Communist revolution in China for newspapers, all the while recording his impressions of war in his poetry. As the Nazi war machine expanded Germany's power, Auden decided to leave the continent, and in 1939 he moved from England to America with the poet Christopher Isherwood, who had been a friend and collaborator since grammar school. Later that year, Auden first heard of the German invasion of Poland that occurred on the first of September via news reports while living in America. He wrote "September 1, 1939" soon after, and it was first published in the New Republic on October 18, 1939. The poem was also included in Auden's 1940 collection, Another Time. Auden became a U.S. citizen in 1946, though he did travel in Italy and Austria after the war. He returned to Oxford as a Professor of Poetry from 1956 to 1961, although he had been a poor student there. From 1954 to his death in 1973, he maintained residences in New York City and Kirchstetten, Austria, and was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In his later years, his writing became increasingly oriented toward problems of Christianity.
When Auden died in Vienna on September 29, 1973, he was one of the world's best-known and most revered poets.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
The opening lines of "September 1, 1939" place the poem's speaker in a bar in New York City. Auden, who had recently immigrated to the United States after living in Europe all his life, wrote this poem to record his response to the news that on the date mentioned in the title, the German army had invaded Poland, an act of aggression that was to grow, in a matter of days, into the Second World War. In line 5, "a low dishonest decade" refers to the slow buildup to this event, which was precluded by negotiations and treatises meant to prevent just such an attack, which seemed, in retrospect, inevitable. The reference to "Waves of anger and fear" that "Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands" is an acknowledgement that this invasion was happening in a new age of mass media, when radio could relay news across the globe more instantaneously than had ever been possible before.
Line 14 mentions Martin Luther, a 16th century German monk and theologian who is widely considered one of the most important thinkers in history. Luther's writings, coming just as the printing press made it possible to reproduce and distribute written materials, challenged basic tenants of Christianity, leading to the Protestant Reformation: nearly four hundred million Protestant Christians follow some form of religious practice that is directly related to Luther's theories. This poem indicates that Luther was the start of an "offence," one which "has driven a culture mad" because of the anti-Semitism that Luther came to espouse later in life. Luther's idea that the Jewish faith could be obliterated by converting all Jews to Christianity later turned angry and dark, as he advocated violence against Jews and the destruction or confiscation of their property. His ideas were adapted by the Nazi party in the twentieth century as intellectual support for their own virulent anti-Semitism.
Linz, mentioned in line 16, is the area in Austria where Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor who drove the Germans to war on September 1, was born. He considered it his home town, and wanted it to be a major cultural center of the Third Reich. Hitler traveled to Linz to make the formal announcement of his plans to annex Austria into the German empire on March 13, 1938. One of the Nazis' major concentration camps, Mauthausen, was built just fifteen miles from Linz in August of 1938. It began as a place to incarcerate thieves and prostitutes, but starting in May of 1939, it began taking in political prisoners almost exclusively.
"Imago," used in line 17, is a term from biology, referring to the final stage of development for an insect, its adult form. In psychology, the word is used to describe an image developed in childhood of an idealized person; that image, carried over into adulthood, causes conflicts when it bumps up against reality. Auden uses "imago" to imply that humans' need to worship someone or something has created an image that allows, or even encourages, the type of violence that will only stir up more violence in retaliation.
Thucydides was a general of ancient Athens who was sent into exile after a military defeat in 411 BCE. In the book that he wrote in exile, History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides reproduces several famous speeches, including Pericles's funeral oration, which praises democracy and the people who have died in the defense of it. In this stanza, Auden faults centuries of humanity for not seeing beyond the "rubbish" of Thucydides's noble words, continuing to make the same mistakes as people made back then because pain and grief are "habit-forming."
Starting around the turn of the century, buildings began to reach new heights, using steel beams to hold them together instead of just concrete walls. The word "skyscraper" was coined in the late nineteenth century, but over the decades newer construction designs allowed for taller and taller buildings: New York City's Empire State Building, built in 1931, held the record as the world's tallest building for 40 years. Manhattan is an island, with limited space to expand except up, and has therefore always attracted skyscraper development. In this poem, Auden inverts the conventional view of skyscrapers, seeing them, not as achievements, but as signs of failure, an "excuse." To him, they represent the drive of imperialism, a policy of powerful countries exerting control over smaller ones. As he wrote in New York City, he drew comparisons between the conspicuous signs of capitalism around him and the military aggression of Germany.
- Though Auden's dislike of this poem meant that he was not recorded reading it, the poet Dylan Thomas included Auden's poem on an album from the Caedmon label titled Dylan Thomas Reads the Poetry of William Butler Yeats and Others, released in 1971. This recording was rereleased on compact disk by Caedmon Records/HarperCollins Publishers in 2002.
The poem returns to the setting established in the first stanza, describing the people sitting at the bar. In this stanza, Auden examines the reaction of ordinary Americans to the world-changing events in Europe on that day. He records their apathy and their desperation that things must continue as they always have, that "The music must always play." The bar that he is in, described as a "dive" in the poem's first line, is referred to here as a "fort" because of the common person's desperation to hold out uncomfortable news. In the second half of the stanza he refers to people living in the delusion of comfort as children, living in fear and deluded into thinking that they are shielded from harm because they have been happy and good, when in fact the opposite is true: this truth is hidden by tradition, custom, and "conventions."
In this stanza, Auden compares the rants of "windiest" militants and famous politicians to the deepest desires of the common people. What they have in common is that the desire for love is not a wish for everyone to love everyone else, but for oneself to be loved by everyone.
Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) was a famous Russian ballet dancer, considered by many to be one of the greatest dancers of all time. At the height of his career, in 1909, he became romantically involved with Russian businessman and philanthropist Serge Diaghilev, whose financial support helped make the Ballets Russes one of the most important and successful companies of its time. In 1919, Nijinsky suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent the rest of his life in a series of mental institutions. According to Sam Diener in an annotated commentary of "September 1, 1939" in Educators for Social Responsibility, Nijinsky wrote in his diary that "Some politicians are hypocrites like Diaghilev, who does not want universal love, but to be loved alone." Auden uses some of these same words, and certainly the same sentiment, in this stanza of the poem.
The phrase "bred in the bone," in line 62, is a shortened version of the proverb "What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh," which means that habits that are rooted deep within the essence of human beings will always show themselves in human behavior.
The common people are held up to comparison with their political rulers in this stanza. In the first few lines, members of the working class are characterized as "commuters" who travel to work in the city. Their journey from the darkness to "the ethical life" indicates an attempt to become morally better than they are, but their morals are characterized by hollow platitudes that only serve to support the traditional understanding of social order. The politicians, who might be thought of as being in charge, are in fact "helpless." Their actions are not the exertion of their will, but some sort of "compulsory game" from which they cannot gain "release." Citizens and politicians alike are presented in the last lines of the stanza as being deaf and mute (dumb).
After a long stretch of observation, the poet returns to self-reflection, thinking about where his own role is in this complex social order. As in previous stanzas, he recognizes the social order, that is followed by both citizens and political rulers alike, to be a lie that is balanced on the competing ideas that "there is no such thing as the State" but that "no one exists alone." The poem recognizes the fact that there needs to be social order, but that the prevailing social order is one of mutual agreement and is not necessarily the way that things have to be. He does not blame either side of the political equation, recognizing that both citizens and those who hold political power are driven by the basic concern for their own survival, but still, he knows that the answer to life's mystery is not one of fighting against one another in fear of going hungry, but to love one another. In line 88, Auden presents love for each other as being unequivocally necessary for life.
The poem's final stanza restates its claims of fear and helplessness. After talking about the world in general, though, it starts to recognize the exceptions to the rule, the individuals who can see through the mistaken assumptions that lead the rest of the population toward hate and apathy. There are people, characterized here as "points of light," who recognize the human situation but are still willing to be positive. Auden acknowledges his own connection to them, stating that, like them, he is made "Of Eros and of dust": "Eros" is a god of the ancient Greeks who is associated with love and sexuality, which are usually considered basic ingredients of human personality, while "dust" is a reference to the fact that humans are connected to the physical world as mortal objects.
The "affirming flame" of the poem's last line is an echo of the author's claim, in line 78, that "All I have is a voice." In both cases, there is no specific course of action offered to combat the situation described here. The poem does not advocate any one political stance, but instead presents speaking out against fear and complacency as the best that one can do in the modern world.
One of Auden's central concerns in this poem is the way that power has traditionally been exerted over masses of people. One clear manifestation of that is when governments use force against each other with no better justification than that they have the power to do it, as was the case with Hitler's invasion of Poland. The shocking thing about that move was that it was morally condemned by so much of the world, which subsequently entered into the fight against Hitler's Axis powers in order to stop what was viewed as unjustified aggression. The treaties and social conventions that could have kept Germany at bay did little to stop Germany from annexing Poland: what mattered was that Germany had the power to do so.
The poem goes on to bring up Martin Luther's assertions that force should be used to convert Jewish people to Christianity. The idea of using power to compel religious thought seems self-contradictory, but Auden presents it as a theme that remained constant from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. Though he shows that there have always been backlashes and repercussions, just as there was inevitable opposition to the annexation of Poland, his point is that those in power continue to disregard the inevitable results and to assert their power.
The brazen use of power is shown in this poem to exist across the centuries, across all types of governments. Stanza 3 openly draws an historical link between democracy and dictatorship in the ways that governments take advantage of people's pain and grief to secure their loyalty. In stanza 4, the poem uses skyscrapers, which are symbolic of the power of technology and capitalism, to be signs of imperialism, which is the spread of government by force over unwilling populations. Throughout the poem, Auden gives one example after another of ways in which those who have power force their will on those who are weaker.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Auden refers to the 1930s as "a low, dishonest decade." Choose two adjectives that you think best describe the past ten years, and write a three-paragraph essay explaining your choices.
- Every year, a list of the world's worst dictators is published by Parade magazine. Find the most recent list and focus on one of the dictators, reading some biographical information about that person. Write that dictator's response to this poem, explaining why he or she thinks social repression is justified.
- In the 1930s, skyscrapers were often used as symbols of humankind's potential for technological achievement. Find pictures representing some accomplishment you think Auden would use to represent society if he were writing this poem today, and present it to your class with an explanation of why you think it is a potent symbol.
- Most Americans paid little notice to the events in Europe on September 1, 1939. There was not widespread support for U.S. involvement in the war until two years later, when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. Conduct a series of interviews and write a chart showing different attitudes toward involvement in conflicts in other countries in the twenty-first century.
According to this poem, the fact that governments and other social institutions are able to impose their power over ordinary people is less serious than the fact that many people give up their own judgment and allow themselves to be ruled by fear. The poem mentions fear early, in line 3, and the concept expands from there throughout the rest of its length. Stanzas 5 through 7, in particular, focus on ways that average citizens give in to their own fears of what unknown, unforeseeable things would happen to them if they tried to stand up against familiar traditions. Line 50, for example, refers to a bar as a "fort" and presents New York City, and cities like it, as "a haunted wood." Even though cities are usually considered the opposite of unpopulated wooded areas, Auden makes the connection by implying that both are ruled by unseen forces that people cannot understand, and so they become fearful.
In stanza 7, Auden quotes the common citizens as they try to make bargains to protect themselves from the things that they fear. Their words are phrased as vows that they will do things they assume will please those who hold power over them, even though there is no real evidence that the ones they fear actually have control over them or care what they do. In the following stanza, Auden refers to the thing they fear as, respectively, "the folded lie," "The romantic lie," and "the lie of Authority."
Much of this poem is dedicated to documenting the frightening state of the modern world. In the end, though, the poem comes around to examining what can be done to oppose the dark forces that make life so frightening. Stanza 8 starts with the poet affirming that his one weapon against all that is wrong is his "voice," implying that speaking out against injustice is a step that may be small but is still significant. Auden advises his reader that the power of the government is just an illusion with the claim that "there is no such thing as the State." He goes on to note that the people in charge of the government are really just people, and not that different than ordinary citizens, when he points out that hunger affects all the same way. By breaking down the overwhelming power of government and tradition like this, he makes the task of opposing it seem at least approachable.
In the last stanza, the poem even recognizes a certain category of good people, identified as "the Just," with a capital "J." These are people who exchange messages of hope with each other, who tend to hope in the same way that one would tend "an affirming flame" against the negative forces that are trying to extinguish it.
"September 1, 1939" starts as a first person account, with the poet appearing within the poem, addressing himself as "I." The setting given in this first stanza is a bar in New York City, where the speaker of the poem says that he is at the time of the invasion of Poland. After that powerful start, however, the first person form of address disappears for most of the poem. Situations are described objectively, not from the limited, subjective perspective of one individual. Facts are given, but little is said about the point of view of the writer.
The author brings himself into the poem in just a few places. In line 19, for example, he prefaces a claim as something that "I and the public know," a phrase that makes the thought so universal that the poet does not see it as something just for the general public, joining them in seeing things this way. In the fifth stanza, he describes what the people in the bar are thinking, but he describes them as an observer, distancing himself from their thoughts. Later in that stanza, and in other places throughout the poem, he includes himself in the human situation by using the word "we," but that word is used so generally that it tells nothing about him or his situation.
In the last two stanzas, the poet discusses himself as a writer. In stanza 8, he refers to the "voice" he has, which gives him a tool to stand against authority, while in stanza 9 he prays for the courage to forget his human fears and limitations. The poem is framed, in the beginning and the end, as if it is a personal statement, though the intervening stanzas ignore the role of the observer and try to relay reality as all people can experience it.
An allusion is an indirect reference to some previous event. Because it is not explained in the context of the artistic work, the artist using this technique must trust audiences to either have enough background knowledge to understand what is being alluded to or to do the research to look up allusions that are unfamiliar.
"September 1, 1939" is rife with allusions, starting with the title: although Auden's original audience for this poem, published in October 1939, would certainly have known the significance of that date, he had to trust that the event would have the lasting implications to make that title relevant to future readers. Allusions to Fifty-Second Street, and to Luther and Linz and Thucydides and Nijinsky and Diaghilev, could serve to distance some readers from the poem's core meaning, but those who understand the allusions will be able to feel a greater appreciation of Auden's view of the world.
The Invasion of Poland
The events that occurred on September 1, 1939, were long in coming. They had their roots in the world order established by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. Maps were reconfigured at that time to allow Poland access to the Baltic Sea, so that it could be economically independent from Germany. For years, the German people resented the fact that a "Polish Corridor" had been designed, dividing Germany from East Prussia, and the fact that the port city of Danzig, which had a predominantly German population, had been ceded to Poland.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1939: Americans hear vague news about the invasion of Poland through a few news agencies.
Today: Thanks to advances in travel and communications, an event that occurs anywhere in the world can be recorded by citizens and broadcast to other citizens all over the world within minutes.
- 1939: Poland is invaded and its territory divided by Germany and the Soviet Union, losing its political independence.
Today: Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Poland has rebounded as an economically vibrant, culturally rich, independent country.
- 1939: Hitler ignores treaties and social conventions to launch an attack against a neighboring country that is the beginning of a massive plan to overtake the countries of Europe.
Today: To combat terrorism, the United States government has adapted a policy of preemptive attack. The overthrow of Iraq in 2003 was not followed by any subsequent expansion.
- 1939: The League of Nations, an international governing body established in 1919, lacks the strength to stop Germany from attacking another country.
Today: Multinational squads of peacekeepers are routinely sent by the United Nations to ensure that those who have signed peace treaties live up to their bargain.
- 1939: The United States has been mired in the Great Depression for the past decade. Citizens feel that they have enough problems in their own country and cannot afford to meddle in the situation in Europe.
Today: The United States has been one of the world's wealthiest countries since World War II. Moral and strategic considerations are more important than economic considerations when deciding possible military action.
When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, he actively pursued German claims to the disputed territories. With the German-Polish Non-Aggression Treaty, signed on January 26, 1934, both sides agreed to keep the current borders intact for ten years. In 1938, however, Hitler's Nazi Party pursued a policy of expansion, and claims for the territory that had been given up after World War I intensified. Poland rejected plans that would run a road
through the Polish Corridor, connecting Germany with East Prussia, because the plans seemed designed to divide and weaken Poland. Germany withdrew from the 1934 treaty, but signed new agreements with Poland and other European countries to avoid war.
At the same time that it was promising to avoid war, Germany was meeting with Russia to form an alliance. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed on August 23, 1939, contained provisions for a realignment of Europe that were not made public until after the war. The basic division of the continent would give Germany control over the western third of the continent and Russia control over the eastern two thirds. With Soviet cooperation assured, Germany invaded Poland a week after the pact was signed. On September 17th, Russia invaded Poland from the east.
The Resulting World War
Two days after the invasion began, before Auden actually wrote this poem, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia declared war on Germany, in accordance with mutual defense pacts that they had signed with Poland. Within hours, France had declared war too. South Africa joined the fight on September 6th, and Canada joined on September 10th. The fact that the invasion had escalated quickly into a global conflict did little to help Poland, though. Poland was defeated on October 6th and entirely occupied by Germany and the Soviet Union.
After that, Germany expanded across Europe, defeating Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in 1940. In June of 1941, Germany turned against the Soviet Union, which, along with Italy and Japan, was a member of the Axis Powers after signing a treaty of alliance the previous year. Despite the spread of war, American citizens chose to stay uninvolved: the country provided weapons and money to the United Kingdom and France, but diplomatically, the United States remained neutral. Indeed, the United States did not commit to fighting until Japan attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, in an attempt to cripple American military capacity in the Pacific. Because Japan was allied with Germany, the U.S. declaration of war against Japan drew America into the European arm of the war as well.
Critics usually divide Auden's career into two phases, with "September 1, 1939" set at the beginning of the second. The first phase, when the poet was a young man in England, was characterized by his fascination with language: as Bruce Guernsey noted in Library Journal when reviewing a collection of Auden's writings from that time, "Above all, what we see implied here is a belief in the word as a tool of understanding both self and society." By the time Auden moved to America, shortly before this poem was written, his mastery of the poetic form was widely recognized. In his essay "W. H. Auden in America," critic Edmund Wilson pointed out that the move to the United States did not seem to have changed his "essential nature. Auden's genius is basically English—though in ways which, in the literary world, seem at present  rather out of fashion." He went on to say that for Auden, America had "given him a point of view that is inter- or supernational." Auden had soured on politics as a result of his travels around the world and experiences with Communist regimes that once offered him hope, and he gradually lost his interest in psychology, as most of the intellectual world did, as its newness wore off. His poetry took on more and more historical illusions and became increasingly intellectual and less emotional.
Readers generally found the later Auden to be less artistically satisfying, although he continued to be recognized as a master of his craft. Still, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his collection The Age of Anxiety and a National Medal for Literature in 1967. In the last three decades of his life, Auden became less interested in poetry and more interested in other intellectual pursuits: though generally considered to still be one of the greatest of living poets, he was also much less read or talked about than he was as an up-and-coming young man in the 1920s and 1930s. A 1972 Listener review by critic Frank Kermode of Auden's newest book began by noting that "Auden's new collection will hardly vex or bother anybody: it will give pleasure to all who have learned to take pleasure from his games, and bore or disappoint those who either haven't, or who gave him up when he grew quieter, more explicit, more conversational."
"September 1, 1939" has always been a popular favorite of Auden's mature works, even though the poet himself dismissed it as rubbish and openly explained that he wished he had never written it. After the terrorist bombings on September 11, 2001, the poem took on a phenomenal new life. The poem was read on National Public Radio and quoted extensively in print, in the New Yorker, and in other publications.
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing in Illinois. In this essay, he considers whether Auden's eventual dislike for this poem was justified.
"September 1, 1939" is one of those rare works of art that finds more acceptance and admiration from the reading public than it did from the man who wrote it. All too often, things go the other way around, with authors too full of pride in their creations to notice when a poem fails to connect with the people who are supposed to be at the receiving end of the communication process. In this case, though, the author was the one who had to insist on the poem's flaws, even though the public's admiration for the work never really diminished. Auden tried altering it, and, unsatisfied, ended up scrapping the whole thing, removing it from publication while it was still one of his most popular works. People remembered it, though, and it has continually popped up in poetry anthologies since its first publication. Then, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the audience for this particular poem blossomed. Readers locked on to the similarities between "September 1, 1939" and the events of the day forty-two years later. It was difficult to avoid the geographical connection, with Auden's opening lines placing the poem in New York City, the site of the most conspicuous carnage of that day. It was difficult to avoid associating Auden's use of tall buildings as symbols of modern society gone haywire with the fact that the attackers also saw the towering World Trade Centers as symbols of decadence. There was no way to miss the fact that the poem was about an evil aggressor's attack on a complacent, unsuspecting public. In the end, what the public wanted most from the poem was what Auden most regretted about writing it: the uplifting suggestion that civilization can, without much effort, protect itself from the hostility that lurks beneath the surface of the civilized soul.
The question that is raised by the way that Auden turned against this poem is not, of course, whether or not it is possible for a poem to be a failure even if millions of readers find it touching: greeting card shops are filled with the works of poetasters who churn out works that are almost always touching, even though no one would mistake them for art. Leaving aside the question of whether a work is popular or not, the even more significant question to be asked is whether the masses might be right in this case, and "September 1, 1939" is actually a better poem than Auden thought.
It would be entirely too presumptuous to second-guess Auden on this matter. That is not to say that a poem's author has insight into the work that should be considered the last word on the subject, because there are millions of cases where artists have had only a general idea of the full range of implications of their work: imagine, for instance, how surprised Shakespeare would be to hear the ideas brought forth by centuries of scholarly analysis on his work. But Auden was one of the most brilliant literary critics of the twentieth century. His view of any poem, even his own, deserves attention. In this case, however, it could well be that Auden's perspective is flawed. There is always the likelihood that he, nor any other poet for that matter, could ever gain enough distance from his work to make an objective judgment call.
The story has been told and retold. Edward Callan reports, in his essay "Disenchantment with Yeats: From Singing-Master to Ogre," that as Auden put it himself in his foreword to W. H. Auden: A Bibliography, 1924-1968:
"Rereading a poem of mine, ‘1st September, 1939,’ after it had been published, I came to the line ‘We must love one another or die,’ and said to myself: ‘That's a damned lie! We must die anyway.’ So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn't seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty and must be scrapped."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Edward Mendelson was Auden's literary executer and editor of recent editions of his works. Mendelson's biography, Early Auden, published in 1981, covers Auden's life up to 1942 and includes the story of how the poet wrote his poem and later came to denounce it.
- Auden formatted this poem to be close in style to William Butler Yeats's famous work "Easter 1916," written to mark the event of the famed Easter Uprising in Ireland. Yeats's poem, originally published in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer, can be found in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, published by Scribner in 1996.
- Auden's poetry was rich with classical allusions, a method that took on a life of its own in his collection The Shield of Achilles. This book was published in 1951, as Auden was progressing in the philosophical phase that started when he moved to America in 1939. It contains 28 poems centering on the Trojan war. This book won a National Book Award in 1952.
- Samuel Hynes's collective biography The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (1976) shows the lives and emerging attitudes of Auden and his contemporaries, such as C. Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, and George Orwell as the signs of the coming war became clearer.
This explanation implies that, even as Auden tried to contain the "lie" with successive amputations, like a surgeon going after a virulent, malignant form of cancer, it kept spreading until the whole poem was contaminated with dishonesty from top to bottom. As admirable that it might seem that Auden would want to save his poem's purity, is "We must love one another or die" really such a "damned lie"? Of course, love is not medicine, an elixir for eternal life, but Auden certainly must have known that he was not the only one to realize that fact. For most readers, the "death" that the poem refers to would be taken as a symbolic, spiritual death: the numbing of the soul, the loss of emotions, that could be expected to follow naturally as a result of an inability to love.
Assuming, then, that Auden, whatever else he may have thought of them, did not think his readers were gullible enough to think that love could actually stave off death, then his objection to the line must have been based on its symbolic meaning. It is a poet's right to want to take back what he has said, but the vehemence with which Auden went after this thought—trying to alter it, then to suppress the line, the stanza, then the whole poem—is not proportional to the damage that could be done, either to the reader's mind or the author's reputation, if people went on thinking that love could be seen as a defense against symbolic death.
There is a broader explanation that has been given for Auden's dislike of "September 1, 1939," having to do with his embarrassment about being the person who committed to print the poem's loftier sentiments. The adjustment from "love each other or die" to "love each other and die" reflects his desire to retain the poem's dark tone: removing the causal link between love and death, the poem admits a resignation to whatever fate might send. In addition to his second thoughts over this line, it has been said that Auden also regretted the shift in tone in the poem's two final stanzas, starting with "All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie" and ending with "May I … Show an affirming flame." Surely, this area of the poem, where Auden suggests that something can actually be done to counter the centuries of hatred and ignorance that he outlines throughout most of its length, is key to the poem's enduring popularity. But, as an artist, the inconsistency was too gross for him to live with.
This brings back a question at the base of all poetry, about the balance between art and the popular imagination. In general, the majority of people have always been inclined to feel more kindly toward works that comfort them, telling them that things are getting better or at least that they can, without much effort. Artistic vision, on the other hand, quite often compels poets to pursue thoughts that the majority will try to avoid. This schism between the popular and the artistic is exacerbated in "September 1, 1939" by the fact that the popular part of the work really does not fit in with the rest of the poem's darker tone. Auden was right to recognize that the final two stanzas stand out, but he was also right that the rest of the work does not stand up without them: the poem is harsh in its assessment of the human condition and human potential, and leaving it without indicating some way to move things in the right direction makes it feel empty and short-sighted, as if only one side of the story is being told. A third way, one that might have caused the author less embarrassment, would have been to offer a ray of hope at the end without claiming that the hope will come from the author himself.
Over the years, there have been other reasons given for why Auden might have soured on this poem after its initial publication, including his judgment that it represented a flawed attempt at writing in the style that William Butler Yeats used in his famous piece "Easter, 1916." Regardless, each explanation pits the public's fondness for "September 1, 1939" against Auden's artistic vision. Neither is absolutely right: though Auden was often right about matters of artistry, in this case it seems that he was too easily embarrassed, too willing to throw out the good with the bad. And though the mass populace's taste in poetry is often suspect, there is still something to be said for a poem that has such a powerful and enduring effect.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "September 1, 1939," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following essay, Miller takes an in-depth look at the poem's allusion to Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), a famous Russian ballet dancer, and his lover, the Russian businessman and philanthropist Serge Diaghilev. Miller claims that because Auden was a homosexual, his reference to the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev is significant. Miller also posits that the turbulent relationship that existed between Nijinsky (the artist) and Diaghilev (the businessman) further reflects and reinforces the overall theme of "September 1, 1939."
Although scholarship exists that deals with the homoerotic encoding in some of Auden's poems, a large section of criticism regarding "September 1, 1939" has been of a formalistic bent. One of the main themes in the poem is fascism. Although touched upon briefly, Auden's allusion to the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev manages nonetheless to both encode and explore the theme of homoeroticism. The way the allusion is encrypted allows one to understand the wily movements of the poem as a means of critiquing the power of art in an authoritarian and homophobic society.
During the thirties formalist criticism prevailed, a practice that eschewed the external circumstances as influential during a work's conception. I will argue that Auden's situation and the external circumstances of 1939 pressured him to a degree that may have been overlooked by formalist criticism. A current 2003 reading is able to trace dualistic aspects of Auden's personal life, which may have been highly influential in such poems as "September 1, 1939." Auden's dualism can be defined as the adversarial clash of reigning as the unofficial poet laureate, a position entailing public scrutiny and surveillance and also being homosexual, a position that in the thirties could not bear an ounce of public scrutiny without reprimand. As the unofficial poet laureate, Auden was equivalent to a politician addressing the entire American constituency. Such a position requires extreme caution about how one is received. Prudence was even more necessary because Auden had emigrated to the United States from England and enjoyed American citizenship. His position as an esteemed professional poet and professor could also include the duty of giving the political forecast for the United States. Such a position entails a great deal of external pressure. This dualism could in turn pressure the poet to encrypt his personal concerns.
To see encoding in the poem, one can divide it into a macro and micro reading and observe how the two interweave and often create two separate subjects. On the macro scale, the dawn of World War II, Nazi Germany, and an erudite damning of the historicity of the world are present: "Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again." Using a micro scale paints a different picture, arguably a self-portrait: "I sit in one of those dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid / […] / Faces along the bar." One sees the poet hiding in a shabby bar, on account of his sexual orientation. The micro aspect of the poem may be coded, cloaked under the pretext of a war, but the fact that Auden, a member of the rentier class, is carousing among the poor, is peculiar and warrants investigation.
The poet presents similarly blurred macro/micro pictures in his allusion to Nijinsky. His choice of a homosexual couple is not conspicuous because he transfers the situation rapidly to a larger sphere, man's Ur-fallacy or "error bred in the bone." He moves swiftly from the dancer's plight of unrequited love into a singular trenchant comment on man's Ur-fallacy, a tendency towards selfish love. Yet his mention of Diaghilev and Nijinksy is a kind of personalized reference, considering it was a homosexual affair. The nature of the ballet dancer's madness is also fitting for both a global and personalized reading.
Nijinsky was diagnosed early with a persecution mania and then later confirmed as a schizophrenic (Buckle 410). Persecution mania is a fitting aspect of paranoia for certain minorities of the 1930s in postindustrial countries: Jews, who represented a large section of Eastern Europe, for example, and homosexuals, who made up a hefty cross section of New York City. Nijinsky, despite feelings of persecution, was nevertheless a world famous Russian ballet dancer, described by A. L. Rowse as "probably the greatest dancer the world has seen" (qtd. in Buckle 142). The striking similarities between the poet and his subject become obvious, seeing that Nijinsky was extremely subject to the public eye, much like Auden, and that they both were homosexuals in countries lacking tolerance for different sexual orientations. Auden's probable identification with Nijinsky and his mention of the ballet dancer in "September 1, 1939" display perhaps even a postmodernist tendency of constructing works to communicate with marginalized individuals. Nijinsky is the Amnesty International poster child for the "international wrong," the "wrong" the poet could not explain without implicating the United States, a country whose citizenship he enjoyed. This stanza, although often overlooked by critics, is the instance in which Auden exposes the current perhaps milder fascism, a force that did not reside entirely in Nazi Germany.
Aside from Auden's probable identification with Nijinsky, aspects of Diagilev also lend more coherence to the pair as possibly being the sliding signifiers for the poem. Some speculate that Nijinsky's madness was brought on by Diagilev's impossible demands of him as a dancer, as an artist. Diagilev was described as:
proud of his resemblance to Peter the Great, he was always a dictator. […] Both ruthless and tender hearted, but the ruthlessness was that of the artist: when each [dancer] had nothing new to offer, Diagilev passed on to the next who had. This led to some heartaches and in the case of Nijinsky—tragedy" (Rowse, qtd. in Buckle 140-41).
In this light, art or the relentless pursuit of art, is easier to understand as a form of fascism. The theme of dictatorship, weaved throughout the poem, is also strengthened with the example of Diagilev, an auteur, whose instruments or works were human beings. Auden's choice of this particular dancer and his patron also show a kind of self-reflexivity in the poem. Auden, as an artist, a transmitter of culture, might fear becoming too prescriptive in "September 1, 1939." Mentioning Nijinsky and Diagilev could be an acknowledgement of the dangerous consequences of art's power to prescribe, its inherent danger of becoming a kind of master narrative. Art, viewed as a master narrative, is the quest for the perfect form, the mastering of a medium with the aim of expression.
Diagilev's "ruthless" search for the aesthetic ideal ignored human, physiological barriers or limits, and in doing so was progressive yet dehumanizing. On the one hand, Diagilev's artistic vision in ballet was innovative and constructive, committing Nijinsky's name to fame. Conversely it was just as destructive because the pursuit of perfection led Nijinsky to madness; he eventually committed himself to a mental asylum for the last thirty-five years of his life. Nijinsky's madness could be pivotal in Auden's understanding of the dangerous and pernicious nature of any aesthetic pushed too far. Auden, perhaps because he was an artist, recognized the danger of tyrannizing ideologies more poignantly in the tragedy of an artist than in the case of Hitler's fascism.
Recognizing the thematic significance of Auden's allusion is key because it establishes a unity in the poem, emphasizing the overarching theme of dictatorial elements lurking and manifesting themselves everywhere, from the aims of artists or their patrons to the extreme case of Hitler. As sliding signifiers, Nijinsky and Diagilev indicate that even the pursuit of art, despite its potential for subversion or transcendence, can appropriate forms of tyranny. Moreover, Auden's allusion, because it is dodgy, tacitly comments on the homophobic and tyrannizing tendencies authoritarian systems espouse.
Source: James Miller, "Auden's ‘September 1, 1939,’" in Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp. 115-19.
In the following excerpt, Jenkins places "September 1, 1939" in both a literary and biographical context. Jenkins notes that the poem's opening lines were influenced by the poetry of Ogden Nash, and adds that Auden, a recent emigrant from England, had been studying American styles of poetry when he wrote "September 1, 1939." Jenkins also describes the poem as "a piece of emotional reportage," calling it "one of the century's key lyrics."
… Sitting in a railway carriage in the middle of Kansas at the end of August, Auden wrote to a friend, "There is a radio in this coach so that every hour or so, one has a violent pain in one's stomach as the news comes on." He arrived in New York just in time for Europe's descent into the maelstrom. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and that night Auden went, apparently alone, to a place called the Dizzy Club, on West Fifty-Second Street. It was probably there, in the noisy bar—"packed to the rafters with college boys and working-class youths" is how Norse described it—that Auden began one of his most famous poems, "September 1, 1939." It was another elegy, this time a farewell to his generation's "clever hopes," aspirations that he had in part been responsible for molding. The thirties had been called "the Age of Auden"; now Auden himself wrote off the entire "low dishonest decade." Yet, oddly, given that this is one of Auden's most sombre poems, the opening cadence is borrowed from one of America's great comic poets, Ogden Nash. Auden, in his early months in the States, had self-consciously searched for American local styles, and had written to a friend about his discovery of Nash's idiom, misquoting from the poem "Spring Comes to Murray Hill": "As I sit in my office / On 23rd Street and Madison Avenue." Auden's new poem begins, "I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street."
But Nash's equable comic accent is drowned out by a more strident rhetoric as the American bar scene gives way to the supercharged power of global indictment:
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Auden wrote the poem over a weekend, but he would spend a good part of the rest of his life regretting it. He soon came to loathe what he felt was its sanctimoniousness and (as he saw it) the frivolity of its famous assertion that "we must love one another or die." In a letter to a friend who had admitted that she found it memorable, he fumed, "The reason (artistic) I left England and went to the U.S. was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1st 1939’ the most dishonest poem I have ever written. A hang-over from the U.K. It takes time to cure oneself."
But poems, like children, defy their creators. Auden later made dogged attempts to extirpate "September 1, 1939" from his canon, but it has become one of his most quoted works. You can see why Auden was dissatisfied. After presenting a despairing picture of individual isolation, Auden asks portentously:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
There is no explicit answer, but the implication is that it is the poet who can restore contact and community to the lonely and the self-immured. Yet, in spite of this remorseless self-elevation, "September 1, 1939" continues to be an important poem. Not since Andrew Marvell's "Horatian Ode" had a poet made equivocation and doubt in the face of a major political event seem so representative a condition. As a piece of emotional reportage, Auden's threnody is a perfect register of the strangely muted onset of the century's worst event, and as long as we read poems for what they describe as well as for what they diagnose, it will remain one of the century's key lyrics. …
Source: Nicholas Jenkins, "Goodbye, 1939," in New Yorker, April 1, 1996, pp. 88, 90-94, 96-97.
In the following excerpt, Hynes provides varied critical insight on "September 1, 1939," including a brief explication of noteworthy aspects of the poem, and discussion of Auden's numerous literary influences. While Hynes does shed further light on Auden as an emigrant, the critic predominantly focuses on Auden's main artistic concerns, most of which can be seen in "September 1, 1939." Hynes identifies these themes as: "History, Art, and Necessity."
… By 1939, it seemed clear to him, as it did to many other Europeans, that the crisis they were facing was not simply another war but the failure of an ideology. If fascism existed, and dominated Europe, if another world war was coming, then the liberal western conception of man must be wrong in fundamental ways—more than wrong, dead. By leaving England when he did, Auden was freeing himself from that dead liberal ideology. Man's condition would have to be understood differently from now on: as existentially alone, cut off from the old roots, the old comforts and securities. And if that was true, then England was the wrong place for an English poet. When an old friend opposed Auden's move, on the grounds that it was dangerous for a writer to sever his native roots, Auden replied that the concept of roots was obsolete: "What I am trying to do," he explained to E. R. Dodds, "is to live deliberately without roots."
It was an extraordinary decision to make—to go in quest of a life that would be a parable of the condition of Modern Man, as though one could become a Kafka character, or the Wandering Jew, by an act of will. Even the word quest itself seems a bit literary and elevated for what was, after all, just another Atlantic crossing. I use it nonetheless, because it was a word—and a concept—that Auden was using a lot then, most notably in his other major poem of these years, the sonnet sequence called "The Quest." Questing was on his mind, because that's what he saw himself as doing: journeying to meet the future.
For a European writer who aspired to rootlessness, America was the obvious place to go. "The attractiveness of America to a writer," Auden told an interviewer for the Saturday Review in 1940, "is its openness and lack of tradition. In a way it's frightening. You are forced to live here as everyone will be forced to live. There is no past. No tradition. No roots—that is in the European sense." In this rootless society a European could escape the past, and become what Auden desired to be: the entirely Modern Man. And then, presumably, he could write Modern Poems.
What such poems would be like we may infer from the poems that Auden wrote during his first year in America—for example "September 1, 1939," a poem that commemorates the day on which the Germans invaded Poland, and liberalism and the thirties died. In the poem a rootless man sits in a rootless place—what could be better for that than a New York bar?—and meditates on what has ended—and why. Around him are rootless, undifferentiated human beings—the faces at the bar, the dense commuters—none having any relation to the speaker, or to each other, none an agent in its own life. The forces that operate in the world of the poem are blank abstractions: Collective Man, Important Persons, Authority, the State. Even the skyscrapers are blind.
Nothing happens in the poem; nothing changes; nothing connects. Yet it ends with two stanzas of affirmation:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie …
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …
The manuscript (in the Berg collection) shows that this floating affirmation was originally even stronger. Auden must have been thinking of two canceled stanzas when he said that the poem was "infected with an incurable dishonesty," and excluded it from later collections of his poems. For sentimentality is a form of dishonesty, and "September 1, 1939" is certainly sentimental: it sentimentalizes loneliness, it sentimentalizes the role of the artist (what good will his voice do in a world war?), and it sentimentalizes the idea of affirmation itself in that final image of the points of light that flash messages without content. (It is worth noting that Auden got that image from E. M. Forster, who had written, just the year before in I Believe: "It's a humiliating outlook—though the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling, ‘Well, at all events I'm still here. I don't like it very much, but how are you?’" In the manuscript Auden first used Forster's word little, before he hit on ironic. Perhaps part of Auden's dissatisfaction with the poem was his recognition that he had not yet cast off Forsterian liberalism: he had brought some of his roots with him.)
"September 1, 1939" is an unsuccessful poem, but it is a useful one to begin with, because in it Auden made a first attempt to deal with the major problems that concerned him in these crucial years: how to think historically about present disaster; how to be an artist in a bad time; and how, and what, to affirm. The poem is therefore a sort of first draft of "New Year Letter." Thinking historically may be the most difficult task that a modern writer can assume, especially in a time of war. In the twentieth century it has been impossible to think about any war in historical terms while it was going on: war-writing, and war-thinking, is always apocalyptic. Auden tried in "September 1, 1939" to see the war, as it began, as an historical consequence: he mentions Protestantism and imperialism, and invokes Thucydides; but there is really no argument offered, only sketchy materials for one. One way to look at the work that followed is to regard it as a series of expansions and revisions of this first wartime view of Modern Man, in the mess of history that he had made.
The years 1939-1940 were productive ones for Auden. In those two years he published two books and wrote another, published more than fifty poems and many reviews, all this while lecturing and teaching, and even for a time running a Brooklyn boardinghouse. And he read: "I have never written nor read so much," he wrote to a friend in late 1939. What he was reading was not primarily literature but science, philosophy, and religion: the sorts of books that a man might turn to who was trying to construct for himself a new understanding of man-in-history. You can get some sense of what this reading was, if you look through Auden's notes to "New Year Letter": Hans Spemann's Embryonic Development and Induction, Margaret Meade's Growing up in New Guinea, the journals of Kierkegaard, Werner Jaeger's Paideia, Nietzsche's Postscript to theCase of Wagner, Charles Williams's Descent of the Dove, Collingwood's Metaphysics, Köhler's The Place of Value in a World of Facts.
If you read through the whole body of Auden's prose for these years, you will find that quotations from these writers keep turning up, often in quite unlikely places, sometimes more than once. And you will find other repetitions—certain definitions and analyses and formulations. You could argue from this evidence that he had simply overextended himself, and was meeting his journalistic deadlines by cannibalizing his own writings. But that doesn't seem an adequate explanation, given the extraordinary fertility of his mind; I think it would be more accurate to say that at this time Auden had certain preoccupations, and that his repetitions express the power of those preoccupations to force their way into everything he wrote. This is true of even his most casual book reviews, in which he would habitually swerve from his ostensible subject—a life of Voltaire or an anthology by de la Mare—to write about his real concerns.
You can group those concerns under three general headings: History, Art, and Necessity; everything that he wrote during these years had to do with one or more of these subjects. And you might go on to say that in fact these are all aspects of one master question. Auden put that question in a review he wrote of Harold Laski's Where Do We Go from Here? Laski's title, he said, posed an unreal question: "The only real question, and this itself becomes unreal unless it is asked all the time, is where are we now?" Everything that Auden wrote—every review, every lecture, every poem—was a draft of an answer to that question. …
Source: Samuel Hynes, "The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 31-52.
Auden, W. H., "September 1, 1939," in W. H. Auden: Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, Vintage Books, 1979, pp. 86-9.
Callan, Edward, "Disenchantment With Yeats: From Singing-Master to Ogre," in W. H. Auden, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 170-71.
Diener, Sam, Annotations and Commentary on "September 1, 1939," in Educators for Social Responsiblilty, http://www.esrnational.org/september1_1939annotated.htm (accessed May 8, 2007).
Guernsey, Bruce, Review of The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, in Library Journal, Vol. 103, No. 10, May 15, 1978, p. 1062.
Jenkins, Nicholas, "Either Or or And: An Enigmatic Moment in the History of ‘September 1, 1939,’" in Yale Review, Vol. 90, No. 3, July 2002, pp. 22-39.
Kermode, Frank, "Faithing and Blithing," in the Listener, October 26, 1972, pp. 551-52, reprinted in W. H. Auden: The Critical Heritage, edited by John Haffenden, Routledge, 1997, p. 470.
Miller, James, "Auden's ‘September 1, 1939,’" in the Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp. 113-18.
Wilson, Edmund, "W. H. Auden in America," in The New Statesman and the Nation, LI, June 9, 1956, pp. 658-59, reprinted in Auden: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Monroe K. Spears, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964, p. 54.
Yezzi, David, "What Auden Believed," in the New Criterion, Vol. 24, March 2006, p. 9.
Hecht, Anthony, "Poetry Makes Nothing Happen: Another Time," in The Hidden Law, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 81-180.
Hecht, a noted literary critic, devotes a long section of this essay about Auden's 1940 poetry collection to an analysis of "September 1, 1939."
In this series of six lectures that Jarrell, one of the twentieth century's greatest American poets and critics, delivered at Princeton in 1952, Auden's career is treated with the kind of tough skepticism that could only come from a peer.
Jung, Carl Gustav, "Psychology and Literature," in The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 84-108.
When Auden uses the phrase "Collective Man" in the poem, he is referring directly to a concept that is proposed by Jung in this essay. Much of the poem is patterned on Auden's understandings of Jung's theories.
Pierre, Walter, "Auden's Political Vision," in W. H. Auden: The Far Interior, edited by Alan Bold, Visions Press International, 1985, pp. 47-72.
Readers hoping to make sense of this poem should understand the poet's political view, which is explained here in one relatively brief essay.