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.”

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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