‘September 1 1939’ is probably the most controversial poem Auden ever wrote. For one thing, it featured an event which led to his being accused of having abandoned his country in its hour of need, even though that hour did not come until nine months after he had left. Although it is now clear that his leaving Britain for the USA had nothing to do with patriotism or lack of it, it is likely that, at the time, he found that accusation difficult to bear.
A stronger element in the controversy is that, sometime after having written it, Auden himself began to develop an aversion to the poem. One reason for this was his growing distrust of what he considered to be high- flown, histrionic rhetoric, such as he found in Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. It was a mode of expression likely, Auden believed, to deflect a poet from dealing only with the truth of things. Another reason may have been that, as with that other disowned poem, ‘Spain’, he no longer held the strong left-wing political beliefs he had once espoused. Auden felt that in writing ‘September 1 1939’ he had deviated from the truth into overblown and insupportable flamboyance and he felt ashamed of it, calling it the most dishonest poem he had ever written. He may also have wished to banish it from his oeuvre because, in focusing objectively on the political weaknesses of the 1930s, he had unintentionally exposed subjective vulnerabilities within himself that he would rather have kept hidden.
Since then other critics, even when expressing a qualified appreciation of the work, have found it seriously wanting in parts. It has become difficult to find anyone who sees both the wood and the trees as one entity.
Auden set the poem within a firm structure, originally consisting of eleven stanzas, each of eleven trimeter (three-stress) lines; however, he later removed two of the stanzas before publication. The remaining nine are irregularly rhymed and each consists of only one sentence, which could account for the unusual punctuation; for example, there is a singlecolon in each stanza where most authors would have preferred a full stop. Although Auden had used the trimeter line in several earlier poems, a probable direct influence here was Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. Both poems have a similarly lyrical, insistent rhythm which carries the poem compellingly along, shaping and reinforcing the subject matter. The poem is not without its complexities and is probably worth dwelling on, in some detail, stanza by stanza.
It begins with the author, an Englishman recently settled in New York, emphatically using American terminology as if to stress: ‘Things are different for me now; here I intend to make a new beginning’. Although relocated far from Europe and its troubles, Auden nonetheless feels ‘Uncertain and afraid’, can still identify with Europe and feels entitled to assess it critically because he was once – and inwardly still is – a part of it. He refers to the 1930s as ‘a low dishonest decade’ because during that time the world’s democracies had appeased the aggressive foreign policies of the totalitarian states. This is why ‘Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands of the earth’. Here ‘bright’ and ‘darkened’ refer not only to the presence or absence of sunlight but also metaphorically to countries where there is still enlightenment contrasted with the ‘darkened’ nations which now threaten them. The poem correctly predicts that this single day’s event and its consequences will preoccupy and effect all ‘private lives’ whatever their circumstances. This stanza, with its ‘unmentionable odour of death’ is redolent with the horrors unleashed that very day in Poland.
In the second stanza the phrase ‘the whole offence’ identifies the nationalistic strain in German culture and traces it from Martin Luther to the present day, a strain which, the poem claims, has driven that culture mad. The term ‘Accurate scholarship’ may carry an ironic touch, implying that, however accurate and valid that scholarship may be, it cannot influence the dreadful outcome one iota. ‘Linz’ was where Adolf Hitler grew up and ‘what occurred’ was his replacing the unsatisfactory example of his brutal natural father with a far more monstrous image of paternity in the form of the Nazi Fatherland, the ‘psychopathic god’ with which Hitler so closely identified himself.
This stanza concludes by invoking the principle of reciprocal hurt. Not only was the young Hitler victimised by his father but Germany had also been victimised by the victorious nations at Versailles and it was now Hitler’s and Germany’s turn to be despotic and cruel. The poem offers this as a valid observation, not as an excuse.
The third stanza treats mainly of weakness in twentieth-century democracy compared with the barbarous strength of its opponents. It is, however, typical of the early Auden also to include a spat against those in authority. It cites as a precedent the Ancient Greek aristocrat Thucydides (c.460- 400 BCE), author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, in which work are exposed the many weaknesses and corrupt practices of Athenian democracy. Both Auden and Thucydides were exiles writing outside their respective homelands but, whereas Auden’s exile was self-imposed, Thucydides was banished for twenty years by the Athenian government for incompetence as a naval commander in the Peloponnesian war.
Both the democratic elders and their dictator opponents are accused of talking ‘rubbish’ which is ‘elderly’ because associated mainly with people in authority, i.e. elders. Auden’s psyche must have contained a deep-rooted fear of, and hostility to, authority, probably conditioned by his outlawed homosexuality and his mother’s authoritarian sway, and this occasionally breaks out in his poems, especially those of the 1930s.
The poem predicts that the ‘apathetic’ democratic leaders will continue talking their ‘rubbish’ to their graves. Their dull, conservative lives are held responsible for ‘The habit-forming pain’, a phrase lifted bodily from Auden’s reading in psychoanalysis. ‘Accurate scholarship’ or not, the poem clearly identifies with Thucydides’ critique of Athenian politicians and transposes it to their present-day equivalents, stressing the latter’s identical ‘Mismanagement and grief’ which ‘We must suffer’ all over again.
The fourth stanza returns to the essentially non-European ‘neutral’ environment in which Auden is now writing. The skyscrapers are ‘blind’ not only because their reflective windows give the impression of sightlessness but also because New York, along with the rest of the U.S.A., is shutting its eyes to the totalitarian threat. The skyscrapers are, in a sense, monuments to ‘The strength of Collective Man’ though that strength is counteracted by the passivity and inertia of the U.S.A.’s then non-interventionist foreign policy.
The radio and press of this ‘neutral’ vacuum are crowded with claims and counter-claims by the belligerent powers, each offering ‘its vain/ Competitive excuse’. Again the poem is prescient of the war’s outcome: America’s neutrality is ‘an euphoric dream’ and who, it asks, ‘can live for long’ in that? As the customers in the ‘dive’ see themselves reflected in the long mirror behind the bar, readers of the poem find themselves looking into the mirror too, and seeing reflected there ‘Imperialism’s face/And the international wrong’. In other words, they and we are all complicit in the process which has now culminated in the outbreak of World War Two. That Auden was able to contain all this in eleven short lines of disciplined verse is surely a measure of his remarkable poetic skill.
In the fifth stanza customers seated on bar-stools in the ‘dive’ are New York’s version of Everyman. They ‘Cling to their average day’ because they find solace and protection in the routine of their lives. They are cocooned by the trappings of the civilisation they live in. They want everything to remain the way it is, undisturbed by anything, and especially not by far-away Europe and its conflicts. The bar, with its perpetual lights and music, is an assembly of ‘All the conventions’; it is, like their homes, a ‘fort’, appearing to defend them against some unspecified threat from outside. But the poem then makes the threat specific. They want to remain protected from seeing where they really are, from having to acknowledge how they truly feel.
Here the poem testifies again for the hidden Auden. It is not only New York’s Everyman who is ‘Lost in a haunted wood,/Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good’. These poignant lines speak in parallel also for the Auden who, deep down, is still part of the child he was, still trying to live up to his dominant mother’s expectations which, due to his homosexuality and other imperfections in the eyes of ‘Important persons’, he would never achieve.
In stanza six any connection with the outbreak of World War Two is secondary to its concern with comparing universal love with individual love and finding the latter wanting. ‘Important Persons’ here has little if anything to do with government officials in favour of appeasing the dictators. It has more to do with anyone in authority, including his parents, being uncomprehending or intolerant of his sexual orientation. The phrase ‘windiest militant trash’ is a throwback to Auden’s adolescent frustration with the odds stacked against him and from which leaving for New York promised a merciful release.
The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his principle male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, were sexual partners. When Nijinsky unexpectedly married, Diaghilev promptly sacked him from his ballet company. Nijinsky began to develop paranoid schizophrenia and kept a diary in which he recorded his feelings of guilt about his previous homosexual activity. He also wrote: ‘Some politicians are hypocrites, like Diaghilev, who does not want universal love, but to be loved alone. I want universal love.’ If universal love had held more sway than individual love Diaghilev would not have sacked Nijinsky and the horrors then being inflicted on Poland would not have been taking place.
The stanza now asserts that individual love – ‘the error bred in the bone/ Of each woman and each man’ – is more ‘crude’ (which presumably means less subtle and refined) than even ‘The windiest militant trash’ of anti- homosexual hostility. It further claims that love between two individuals ‘Craves what it cannot have’ – that being ‘loved alone’ is doomed to disappointment. How true this may have been of Auden’s own relationships up to that point, or his experience of his parents’ relationship, can only be imagined. What is surely beyond conjecture is that there must be many individuals whose own life experience would contradict his assertion.
It looks very much as if, in this particular stanza, Auden did not completely succeed in reconciling the ideas he wished to express with the form in which he wished to express them; he had to rely on the poem’s insistent rhythm to carry the reader over this difficulty. This is bound to have contributed to his growing determination to disown the poem.
In the seventh stanza the phrase ‘conservative dark’ suggests several states of protective unawareness – pre-birth, sleep, the subconscious – while ‘the ethical life’ denotes the conscious, rational world into which the commuters emerge. They are ‘dense’ not only because of New York’s crowded population but also because they are willingly dulled by ‘all the conventions’, including heterosexuality, which in part condition their routine resolution to lead more honest and purposeful – hence ‘ethical’ – lives. Meanwhile the ‘helpless governors’ are similarly trapped in the routine of their ‘compulsory game’. Both governors and governed are all ‘deaf’, ‘dumb’ and imprisoned within the roles imposed upon them by society. ‘Who,’ the poem asks, ‘can release them now’?
Stanza eight begins with the poet in the role of prophet and healer, although ‘All I have is a voice’ suggests a limitation on that role. Auden was fond of emphasising the difference between the poet who makes and the man of action who does, perhaps harking back to his poem on the death of W. B. Yeats, written seven months earlier, in which he states ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. After all, what is a mere voice compared with the might of warring nations and the ingrained habits of society’s members?
The ‘voice’, however, knows what it must try to do; it must ‘undo the folded lie’. But what does the poem mean by that? There would seem to be, in fact, two folded lies: ‘The romantic lie in the brain’ and ‘the lie of Authority’. The first is that of ‘the sensual-man-in-the-street’, the one who is always promising to be true to his wife and whose frequent falsehoods on that score may be taken for granted. But it may also refer to human readiness, especially in the young, to confuse sex with love. The phrase ‘The romantic lie in the brain’ surely equates with ‘the error bred in the bone’ in stanza six. Both refer to the confusion introduced into the human heart by sexual drive and this in turn links back to the difference between individual and universal love – the old dichotomy of Eros and Agape.
The ‘lie of Authority’ is that which maintains not merely that the State exists but that it is more important than its individual subjects. This is the main theoretical distinction between democracy and its totalitarian counterpart. If it is true that ‘no-one exists alone’, it means that we must all belong to some large social entity, and we call that entity ‘society’. It is when that society is given a national identity that we call it the State. The poem would seem to assert that the State is a fictional notion of society invented by its governors for the purpose of wielding authority over its individual members. We now come to lines nine and ten. While it is self-evidently true that everyone, whether governing or governed, will become hungry if they have nothing to eat, the telling implication of these two lines is that ‘no- one exists alone;’ and instead of going to war with each other we should be looking after each other. In other words, the poem is offering what, in this context, is the perfectly sensible conclusion: that ‘We must love one another or die’, the corollary of which is that if we do not love one another we will kill each other, as was happening even then on the opening day of World War Two.
This last line is probably the most famous – or infamous – in the poem. It has been both attacked as a blatant lie and praised as a line of supreme nobility. Auden joined in the attack on the grounds that we were all going to die anyway. That Auden could have read the line in that fashion only shows that he had allowed an irritable reaching after fact and reason (Keats’s phrase) to separate him from the source from which his poetry sprang.
Some critics have read the ninth stanza as sanctimonious pretence to a piety which the author did not actually possess. Others have questioned who ‘the Just’ really are and what entitled Auden to hope to be one of them. One can only remind such critics that once a poem has been written it takes on a life of its own, independent of its author. The two are, of course, closely connected – the poem did not write itself – but they should not be confused with each other. Besides, as Joseph Brodsky said of this poem, ‘…you don’t dissect a bird to find the origins of its song’.
‘Defenceless under the night’ chimes with the fate of the Polish people at this hour and harks back to ‘Uncertain and afraid’ in the first stanza. Though on this first day of the war no one could know its ultimate outcome, there seemed little grounds for optimism. The ‘points of light’ are ‘ironic’ because the darkness seemed so overwhelming one would not have expected to see any light at all.
But note that the ‘points of light’ are not rare or spasmodic; they are ‘dotted everywhere’; ‘the Just’ are out there and, though they are ‘Beleaguered by the same/Negation and despair’, they are in touch with each other; they are fully a part of this stanza’s strong affirmative message. In reading this stanza one experiences hope – as there has to be if one remembers the place of World War Two in the eternal struggle between good and evil.
The beauty of this stanza lies in the way its language expresses that hope.
Surely, in that context, we know very well who ‘the Just’ are. All societies are an uneven mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent. The ‘Just’ are the good, the ones upon whom civilisation depends, in whom the hopes of mankind reside, who know that we must all struggle to leave the darkness and strive towards the light. When any of us is in a crisis, or a seemingly hopeless situation, we are at least entitled to a prayer, and that is precisely what the final five lines amount to. Auden is, after all, only human like the rest of us, ‘composed … Of Eros and of dust’, and who can blame him for praying to be on the side of the Angels?
Despite Auden’s later hostility to the poem, could he really not have believed what he was writing when he was writing it? Of course he did. He believed it then because he was still fully in touch with the wellspring of his art. It came from a region deep within him – deep within us all – where experiences ‘…do often lie too deep for tears’.
So there we have the whole poem. It is one very much in the mode of the ‘English’ Auden, characteristic of his then prevailing faults and virtues. He was thirty-two when he wrote it and already famous for a kind of poetry which he subsequently tended to gainsay. He expressed the view that in Britain he ‘could never grow up’ and that it was partly to avoid writing more poems like this one that he had felt obliged to abandon his homeland.
The poem offers an informed vision of the then contemporary world and its ills, expressed with great lyrical accomplishment though not without the occasional petulance normally associated with frustrated adolescence. It is at least possible that, because the poem reveals brief flashes of this vulnerable inner self – one that he was normally at pains to conceal – that he came to despise it.
Auden, however, despite his protestations to the contrary, was not always the best judge of his own work. Whatever the merits of his later poetry, it rarely, if ever, achieved the characteristic phraseology, lyrical poise and beauty of ‘September 1 1939’. This poem is unmistakably a waking call to dormant mankind and, especially in the superb final stanza, a fortifying affirmation of life, quite irrespective of whatever the author came to think about it later. Auden gave it that life and we can only be grateful for it.