Sunday Pages: "September 1, 1939"

A poem by W.H. Auden

Dear Reader,

I was sent this poem, and read it for the first time, yesterday. I cannot believe it was written about September 1, 1939—when the Nazis invaded Poland, starting the Second World War—and not September 1, 2021. It feels especially topical.

All of the keywords are there: low dishonest decade, belief in fantasy as an “offence” that has “driven a culture mad,” dictators, governors, the international wrong, “militant trash” being shouted, the conservative dark, and, as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night. In the final stanza, there is even a suggestion of Twitter, or at least of the power of single individuals making our collective voices heard—beacons of light in the darkness. How could Wystan Hugh Auden, poet and seer, have written these lines in 1940?

This has been a dark week for democracy. The champions of tyranny in our government have shown their hand. The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan and the Texas State Legislature. These are formidable enemies. Hatred, ignorance, and cruelty are powerful things, the fuel in the engine of autocracy.

But hatred, ignorance, and cruelty are not inevitable, nor are our enemies omnipotent. The forces of evil can be defeated in exactly the way Auden says, by collectively raising our voices, loud enough to drown out their hateful claptrap: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” and insisting on the truth, which is this: “We must love one another or die.”

Read the poem. Read it again, aloud if you can. And steel yourself to show the world, in the perilous days ahead of us, your affirming flame.

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.


Photo credit: Richard. On board the Queen Mary on the way to vacation in England ca. 1930.