Tuesday, September 01, 2009

W.H. Auden: "September 1, 1939"

(From "One Poet's Notes" by Edward Byrne)

On the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by Germany and the opening of World War II, perhaps today presents the perfect time to revisit W.H. Auden’s famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” written in the immediate aftermath of those events. The piece appeared in The New Republic in October of 1939, and it was included in Auden’s 1940 collection of poetry, Another Time, published by Random House. Although this poem has been a favorite of many readers ever since, it received particular renewed attention in the days after September 11 in 2001, and not just for the uncanny superficial similarities in lines like the following: “The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night.”

However, we also know Auden became disenchanted with his own poem soon after its publication. Auden attempted editing the work from the very start, omitting a couple of stanzas even before its publication and later changing one of the poem’s most memorable lines, which Auden concluded displayed “dishonesty”: “We must love one another or die” became “We must love one another and die.” Auden eventually revised the poem by deleting the stanza containing that line. Finally, still unhappy with the language, he tried to limit reprinting of the poem altogether by refusing almost all requests for its inclusion in anthologies.

One reason for Auden’s change of heart about this poem could be a personal shift in political perspective on his part as he moved from England to the United States and drifted away from his earlier stance as one sympathetic to socialism, adopting more concern for religion as well. The poem also attracted criticism from some readers for what they perceived as too easy an explanation for horrible actions, if not an excuse for evil behavior, in lines such as the following: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

Nevertheless, as evidenced by the work’s enduring stature seventy years after its composition despite Auden’s attempts to erase it from his body of work, and as witnessed in the poem’s recent popularity after 9/11, most readers have responded well to the poetry, even if many apparently seem to misread some of its elements. As Adam Gopnik has written in The New Yorker (“The Double Man”: September 23, 2002): “‘September 1, 1939,’ far from being a call to renewed conscience after a period of drift, is actually a call to irony and apolitical retreat, a call not to answer any call. But, past a certain point, poets can’t be misread, not by an entire time, no more than an entire family can misread a father: the homecoming noises in the hallway are the man; the accumulated impression is the poet. What matters is the sound he makes. Auden’s emotional tone is our tone, even if his meanings are not always our meanings.”

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....(more)
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