Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’

Shortly before his death, the poet W.H. Auden told talk-show host (and former politician) Richard Crossman, “Nothing I wrote prevented one Jew from being gassed or stalled the war for five seconds.”

At first glance, this places the bar very high for the role of a writer in the affairs of the world, but it is simply a stark assessment of the reality that a writer has no say in the practical matters of life and death. He is not saying that words do not matter but is instead drawing the boundary between where they do matter and where they can not. Writers are makers and not doers, not “men of action,” Auden also liked to say.

One of his most famous poems is September 1, 1939, written to mourn the outbreak of World War II. The title is of course the date Germany invaded Poland. It was written quickly, allegedly that day, was not heavily edited, and published in The New Republic soon after. Auden came to reject the poem and he refused three times to include it in the three editions of his Collected Poems that he oversaw.

He told Crossman that the poem possessed rhetoric that was “too high-flown.”

In the second-to-last stanza he wrote,

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.

Auden said that he especially rejected that last line and wanted to correct it to, “We must love one another and die,” because “or die” is not real. There is nothing we can choose versus death.

But it was lines like, “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return” and “There is no such thing as the State,” that he probably found too “high-flown.” They are too definitive, too short to allow for nuance, too inarguable—not because they are obvious, but because they are rhetorically rendered to disallow argument. (Was “evil” done to Germany? Heck, “evil” is a thick word, and if Germany is doing evil, Mr. Auden, why not explain what you mean by that? And if Germany is doing evil, what evil is any kind of response to any evil? Injustice is injustice is injustice.)

Auden rejected the poem for the wrong reasons. “All I have is a voice,” he wrote, and even if that, too, is factually incorrect—in many if not most countries, each of us has a voice as well as a vote and we can campaign—it is correct in an essential way: the writer is “a maker, not a doer,” is a voice, and the writer has a right to be audaciously “high-flown,” audaciously non-nuanced, audaciously incorrect. It was too bad he was rejecting his own right to be audaciously incorrect.

W.H. Auden at Oxford late in life

W.H. Auden at Oxford late in life

It is understandable why he rejected the poem from his own canon: he disagreed with some thoughts and he found others expressed incorrectly. It is just as understandable why (that awful word) the poem has been embraced by people of very different political stripes for different reasons. President Johnson himself intoned, “We must love one another or die,” in his awful “Daisy” television ad in 1964. And the poem was reprinted in many American newspapers right after September 11, 2001. Auden was angry about LBJ using his poem and he probably would have been irritated by the later embrace.

Very little in the poem is accurate, but poets have the right to be inaccurate, and “All I have is a voice” is his claim to that right. Very little in the poem is accurate, except for one thing: We must love one another. It should not feel like bravery to say that, but it does, today just as much as it possibly seemed to in September 1939. Bravery is a skill. We must continue to hone it.

Here is the complete poem:

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.


* * * *
Some of this first appeared in January 2015.

* * * *
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  1. Relax... · September 1, 2016

    I like the whole thing, and I’d have liked it back then, too. It smacks of reality that is neither overly hopeful nor overly dismal. I hear him saying, “We still have a chance..”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandra Conner · September 2, 2016

    I just discovered your site today, and this piece is the first I’ve read here. It’s an interesting article. I like the poem very much, and I couldn’t help but think how interesting it is that Mr. Auden seemingly considered this poem one of his least valuable works, yet it is the one piece of his work that you felt was worth doing a whole blog post about. That’s the way it is with all of us as writers, isn’t it? Often we misjudge out own work because so many times what we see as having minimal value is really for someone else and their need to be understood or affirmed or represented. And to that someone else, our work is extremely valuable. On the other hand, some pieces that we’ve thought were the epitome of our writing efforts were left to mold on the shelf by 90% of our reading public. It’s truly a unique world — this world of wordcrafting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian Dean Powers · September 18, 2016

    Like any good poet, he was his own harshest critic. I still like this poem, if only because it makes a response to a shocking event that I cannot even imagine. He was a man of the world and he knew what was coming.

    Liked by 1 person

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