September 1, 1939: by W. H. Auden - Summary & Analysis

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      Auden's poem 'September 1, 1939, was originally published in New Republic of October 18, 1939. It was reprinted in the poet's collection of 1940, Another Time. September 1, 1939, is the date of Hitler's invasion of Poland, with which a decade of shameful political compromise came to an end and the long waiting war, at last, broke upon the West. The poem is centered upon the need to establish a just society. The basis of such a society is universal love, the Christian Agape indeed, which appears to be denied by the Eros of the individual corrupted by sin. According to Auden, nobody is pure in heart, because the law of our own nature is corrupt; Eros, being selfish, tends towards evil.

      On September 1, 1939, as the War begins and the "clever hopes expire, of a law dishonest decade", the poet reflects on the historical, psychological, and political meaning of what is happening; the basic fault, he concludes is one of love.

      The poem is written in the manner of Yeats's Easter 1916'. It has the same posture and fervor and the sense of fear and uncertainty as we find in the famous poem of Yeats.

Auden's poem 'September 1, 1939 was originally published in New Republic of October 18, 1939. It was reprinted in the poet's collection of 1940, Another Time.
September 1, 1939


      The poem's setting is a bar in the City of New York, remembering formidable event of history On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, where the poet sits reflecting upon the momentous. The poet, and every other ordinary man of goodwill sits in the pit of the city, "uncertain and afraid". The decade of 1930's was a decade of shameful political compromise. The whole of the world was torn between anger and fear. The fear of death was hanging over the head of everybody like the sword of Democles: "The unmentionable odor of death, offends the September night."

      In the first Stanza, the poet describes the 'waves of anger and fear' which gripped the 'darkened lands of the earth', affecting the private lives of the people and bearing a burking fear of death at its trail.

      In the second stanza, W. H. Auden casts a searching glance retrospectively on the history of Germany since the times of Luther and concludes that the whole German nation and culture went mad when Luther launched his movement of nationalism. The process of disintegration and violence which started with Luther had reached its gruesome culmination with Hitler. Auden feels, following the tradition of Freudian Psychology, that Hitler, the "imago" of Linz, developed into a psychopath due to the unfortunate experiences of his childhood.

      In the third stanza, it is said that the dictators have exploited and twisted the principles of democracy and deceived people by mouthing falsehood and nonsense. Over the centuries in the past, people have become deadened to rational thinking and 'enlightenment'. They have accepted the state of affairs and are willing to suffer pain and suffering at the hands of the misgoverning rulers.

      In the fourth stanza, the blind skyscrapers', proclaim the strength of "collective man" - the society and the establishment. Each country uses its own language to deceive the people about their lot, but it is impossible to be lost in an 'euphoric dream' permanently. In the mirror of the skyscrapers and the achievements of "collective man" people can see the faces of imperialism and the reflection of wrongs done to mankind everywhere and in all times.

      Stanza five, describes how euphoria has made people forgetful, of course temporarily, about the miseries and cruelties perpetuated by war. People spend most of their time in the bar, where "The lights must never go out. The music must always play." This was the time o black-outs because of the fear of air-raids: but the people in the bar do not want the lights to go out since that would make them conscious of the war. Therefore, all the social conventions (social gatherings, visiting the bar) have made them assume bar-like places as the most secure and comfortable niche, where they feel quite at home. This temporary oblivion of their real predicament provides them a sense of security and they forget for the time being as to where they are: "Lest we should see where we are". They would not like to be reminded that theirs is a generation "lost in a haunted wood", where children are afraid of the night, and where they have "never been happy or good."

      In the sixth stanza, Auden introduces the main thought of the poem; we might call it the central theme of the poem. It is universal love, the Christian Agape versus the individual, selfish love, Eros.

      Diaghilev believed in Eros (to be loved alone) and not in Agape (universal love). The same is the case with other ordinary people. The basis of the just society is the universal love, the Christian Agape but since the individuals are corrupted by sin; such "just society" is denied to them by Eros.

      In the seventh stanza, the poet talks of the helplessness of man, uneventful life and the governors playing their game of fooling them goes on incessantly. Who can 'reach the deaf' and 'speak for the dumb?

      The last stanza, concludes on the note of faint hope. It signifies Auden's inclination to religion. In the present system, the world is defenseless, living in an euphoric dream. It appears that such a world will never be redeemed. Yet here and there, we find flashes of messages exchanged between other poets signifying the establishment of a just society. The poet, although sharing the same weakness of Eros and troubled by the same 'negation and despair', hopes to preach the message of universal love in which the ultimate hope for the survival of mankind lies. Auden in this stanza shows the world "an affirming flame", the universal love, and the faith in religion, which can bring security and sanity to the world.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Written in the meter of W.B. Yeat's "Easter 1916" W. H Auden's September 1, 1939, is a political elegy, full of psychological significance. It reflects vividly the mood of Europe on the eve of the outbreak of the World War II. For many left-wing poets, the 1930's had been a period of uncertainty, in which dreams of the death of the 'old gang' and the revolutionary transformation of society had gradually been changed into the nightmare of the revival of right wing-power. It had emerged victorious in Spain and then in 1939 the combined forces of Germany, Japan and Italy must have appeared to many to signal the proof of their worst fears. The poem affords us some evidence of his state of mind as he sat in One of the dives / On Fifth-second Street and pondered over the meaning of the latest world disaster with its Unmentionable Odour of death.

      The lines of the second stanza characterize the scope of the poem as a whole. It makes an analytical statement that has simultaneous historical, cultural, political and psychological significance. It is in the last of these that the poem resolves itself as the poet discovers the "folded lie" by which modern man attempts to live. He accepts as a reality the abstract notion of the all-powerful state, 'the lie' of Authority. At the same time he tries to live by the "romantic lie" of self-love, the craving "to be loved alone", when in fact, "no one exists alone". The first lie is the monstrous mechanism of destructive organization. The other - the isolated individual - is self-regarding 'crooked' love, Eros, which mingles with the 'dust' in every man. There is another form of love, not named as such, Agape, universal love, and it is that which the first just can praise and that can save him, "we must love one another or die".

      Auden's' style in September 1, 1939' is Raconic. The diction of the poem is slightly terse which suits the didactic and prophetic stance Auden takes in the poem. The poem leaves an impression of abstraction, of an exercise in metaphysical thinking overlaid with Freudian and Marxian references. For a modern poem taken up with a modern concern of war and the sterility of civilization, the imagery is unsuitable, hence the poem is devoid of images except the two images of a bar and the skyscrapers.

      The poem suffers from ambiguity of attitude which seems to founder on pessimism and hope. It is not clear who the just are, on whom Auden pins his hope for the world. His cosmos is sharply divided into the unthinking masses and the crooked rulers and the third category of the just is left unexplained and unaccounted for.

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