In the wake of 9/11, students at Stuyvesant High, a few blocks from Ground Zero, included a poem in a special issue of their newspaper. This same poem was distributed around NYC. The Times Literary Supplement’s ‘Letter from New York’ cited this poem, set as it was in this same city in the same month (September).
If there was ever a poem that spoke to the moment, it was this one. Written on Day One of World War II in 1939, published in 1940 – 80 years ago – this singular poem qualifies as the Poem of the Age. ‘September 1, 1939’, by Wystan Hugh Auden, remains one of his most quoted and examined poems.
Born in England, an American citizen later, Auden is one of 20th century’s greats, with WB Yeats, TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens. The American poet John Ashbery would describe Auden as ‘the modern poet’. Aidan Wasley titled his 2011 book after the phrase that, as he notes, ‘was already a cliché’: the ‘Age of Auden’.
Auden’s range, stylistic minimalism and satirical line have ensured that he remains one of the most read poets of our age. His aphoristic constructions like ‘To be free is often to be lonely’, or ‘we must love one another or die’ or ‘man must either fall in love with Someone or Something, or else fall ill’ have been resonant. His allusive responses to other poets have a certain evocative mood:
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.
(‘Their Lonely Betters’)
Auden’s elegiac line emerges in the stunning poems on Yeats and Freud, and famous texts like ‘Funeral Blues’:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
In terms of biography, Auden’s collaborations and relationships – his lover Chester Kallman, Christopher Isherwood– are now as famous as his book reviews (of The Lord of the Rings, for instance), his prose and lectures (Lectures on Shakespeare).
Auden died in 1973. Whether his death was in line with his own belief that great artists die when they have done the work they are meant to do, is a moot point. ‘September 1, 1939’ is often described and studied as a war poem, with good reason. But it speaks about a lot more than war.
A Biography of a Poem
Ian Samson’s September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem (2019) links the poem to places, events and Auden’s life, with a vast amount of information about the writing and publishing history. For Samson, the poem is: “not only one of those rare coincidences in literature in which the force of history meets personal psychology and ideology, to produce something truly marvellous – it also represents a moment of crisis, where the great pressures at work both outside and inside the poem force certain flaws to become apparent.”
Samson sets out to show how ‘the work of a poet becomes “modified in the guts of the living” (Auden’s words), and not just modified, but colonised, metabolised, metastasised. It is a record of how and why we respond to great art’. Auden was listening to radio broadcasts on the situation in Europe. The date (1st Sept 1939) was headlined thus in The New York Times: GERMAN ARMY ATTACKS POLAND; CITIES BOMBED, PORT BLOCKADED; DANZIG IS ACCEPTED INTO REICH.
President Roosevelt declared: “Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality.” There would be, Roosevelt stated, “no blackout of peace in the United States”. Samson notes how these texts resonate in the poem’s images of ‘neutral’, ‘proclaim’ and ‘points of light’. Samson’s intriguing work traces the allusions, subterranean meanings and contexts of Auden’s poem. But the poem itself has intriguing possibilities.
A ‘low dishonest’ decade
Auden is meditating on human history. Indeed, Carolyn Steedman in Poetry for Historians believes Auden’s oeuvre is a treatise on history itself. Elsewhere, Auden would imply that one understands poetry as a history lesson too:
he merely told the unhappy Present to recite the Past
like a poetry lesson (‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’)
In ‘September 1, 1939’ Auden would invoke a certain history. Auden described the entire 1930s as a ‘low, dishonest decade’, which over time became a fixed descriptor for the period for other commentators. For Auden, the dishonesty began much earlier. Auden believed that many of the problems of modernity could be attributed to the forms of thought handed down to us from Western Renaissance and the Enlightenment:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad
Like commentators who see the Holocaust as a tragically inevitable moment in the ‘progress’ of modernity, Auden traces a history of the age’s dire straits. Criminal acts, negligence and selfishness mark Western civilisation, and we now perceive its effects in the ‘dishonest decade’. World War II was the culmination of numerous deceptions: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931) and then China (1932), Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and Hitler becoming chancellor (1933), Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia (1935), among others. (Linz refers to the scenes of Hitler’s childhood.)
In this context, ‘waves of anger and fear’ – referring to radio broadcasts but also waves of sentiment – encircle the world. Our lives, public and private, are collectively enmeshed in ‘the unmentionable odour of death’. Auden’s great moral lesson comes at the end of stanza Two:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Alexander McCall Smith, the novelist, in What W H Auden Can Do for You correctly writes of the above lines that they have the ‘ring of nursery wisdom to it—the sort of adage that one encounters, or used to encounter, in a child’s picture book’. What we see now is the repressed of history, its wronged, coming back to claim its due. When America cited Auden’s poem in the wake of 9/11, this (moral) lesson was ignored, as commentators noted. The implication is: how children respond to wrongs done to them is exactly how nations also respond, at some point in the future. We are the products of our upbringing, contexts and individual and collective histories.
But we may choose to forget the lessons from history. We may linger in a ‘euphoric dream’ sitting in a neutral city, but that will dissipate soon in the face of the reality:
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Future of the Present
Auden did not see the future as becoming better. Since the future grows out of a dishonest decade, with massive wrongs perpetrated on various communities and nations, what is the future?
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
Auden proposes that in the future, universal love is doomed to failure:
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.
A ‘universal love’ is impossible, because we crave individual love. In such circumstances, with set patterns of behaviour (‘compulsory game’), Auden asks:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
His provisional answer is: the poet. Although Auden once dismissed poetry with ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (‘In Memory of WB Yeats’), he suggests that the poet may offer an incantation:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
But even this small effort, in the face of ‘Authority’, may be effective. Elsewhere Auden had expressed his view of poetry:
The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us…I think it makes us more human…
Towards the end, Auden revives hope in poetry:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
In ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, Auden would echo the horrors of Europe:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
And outlines the poet’s role:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
The (Un)expurgated, Unending Auden
‘September 1, 1939’ perhaps has the most debated line in modern poetry, one debated by the poet himself!
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
‘We must love one another or die’, the line that Auden eventually came to dislike, became an anthem. In a 1972 interview, Michael Newman, a protege of Auden and a poet, asked Auden: ‘What’s your least favourite Auden poem?’, and Auden replied, ‘September 1, 1939’. Auden wrote elsewhere:
‘Rereading a poem of mine…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.’
‘September 1, 1939’ was rejected by its author for this one line, and he did not accord permission to republish the poem. Oddly, this poem remains his best-known one. The poet Anthony Hecht writes about this line in The Hidden Law: The Poetry of WH Auden: ‘it was the doctrine of love as a curative force, and Auden had come to enlarge it to include the cure for social ills and society as a whole, as well as the psychopathologies of the individual’. The debate has not concluded.
Auden’s legacy is incredible, to enunciate a truism. Vaster than Philip Larkin in terms of vision, appealing like Yeats and contextually nuanced like Eliot, Auden in works like ‘September 1, 1939’ offers a snapshot of an age. On the occasion of the poem’s 80th anniversary, we could perhaps say of Auden what Auden said of Freud:
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives…
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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