SEPTEMBER 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden

Seems appropriate to the day.  Today is also the birthday of a dear friend who is gone from us now, who loved Auden.  Safe and happy long weekend to North American friends.  Safe and happy short weekend to the rest of you!

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 dead,
 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.
 
 Defenseless 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.
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4 responses to “SEPTEMBER 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden

  1. I wasn’t familiar with that poem – thanks for sharing it.

  2. A Polish friend told me today that 1st September is the date Polish children go back to school after the summer, every year. That must have longlasting effects.
    Birthdays of the gone are strange, aren’t they? I usually buy flowers , even for the ones who would think I was crazy. I hope it’s long enough that you can miss your friend with more warmth, and less pain.

  3. I hadn’t seen that poem either, thanks for sharing it! I’ve had to reread it a few times to pick up the cadence/meanings. I love Auden.

    You took a class w/Sue Rainey? Jealous!

  4. A somber thought provoking poem for that day in history. Thanks.

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