Auden’s Struggle with “September 1, 1939”

Many people are familiar with W.H. Auden’s great 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.

What many people may not know is that Auden was deeply ambivalent about the poem. Eric McHenry explains:

Auden, apparently, decided that its ambiguities couldn’t be reconciled with its declamatory tone. Rereading it shortly after its publication, he arrived at the line “We must love one another or die” and “said to myself: ‘That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.’ So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.”

He banished it from subsequent editions of his work, and I’m not sure, frankly, how it finally found its way back into print. I’m thankful it did. Its thematic ambiguity only strengthens the sense that it is the poem for our present pain. When Auden called it “trash which [he was] ashamed to have written,” as Edward Mendelson observes, he was taking the poem “far more seriously—and taking poetic language far more seriously—than his critics ever did.” By expressing such disappointment in a poem so great, by attaching such a profound sense of failure to it, Auden kept in play the possibility—by no means a certainty—that there are sorrows even the most well-chosen words can’t reach.

Auden is a fascinating example of the sort of literary convert the early to mid 20th century often produced. He was, like Dorothy Day and a number of others, somebody attracted to the Faith because of his horror at the rise of fascism and his empathy for things and people that today’s MAGA antichrist religion regards with revulsion. His rejection of Hitler is obvious, of course (something today’s fascistic trends in Orban-adoring conservative Christians circles of the type popularized by Rod Dreher love to play with). And he was honest enough to face (and never really resolve) the fact that, at the end of the day, the Christian command to love neighbor is not proposed as a panacaea for World Peace, but as the Way of the Kingdom that is not of this world.

This is not to say that the command “Love one another as I have loved you” does not issue in peace. It does. But the reality is, as Auden makes clear, that death comes for us all. And that death, in this world, often comes from the violence of war. Jesus tells us how the world works: “In this world you will have tribulation” says Jesus (John 16:33). That’s just how it is, always has been, and always will be. Jesus never promises otherwise, never guarantees the abolition of war, never says that (before the Parousia), we will all love one another and not die. Just as the truth is that you can eat right, stay fit, get plenty of exercise and die anyway, so the truth is that a disciple of Jesus can, like Jesus, live a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control and still die in torments. It has happened many times and there is absolutely no guarantee from Jesus that is will not happen. What is promised by him is that “I have overcome the world.” So he tells his disciples something that only makes sense if the Resurrection, not death, is our ultimate destiny:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. (Lk 21:16–18)

Auden never felt the poem to be fully honest and he is certainly permitted to judge his own work as harshly as he pleases. For myself, I still think it a great work and agree that it is better amended to “We must love one another and die” for that is what we shall certainly do until That Day, whether we love one another or not. But I also think that, as we love one another, we are preparing for That Day when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Re 21:4).


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