By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘September 1, 1939’ is one of W. H. Auden’s most famous poems, although Auden (1907-73) later disowned the poem and banned it from appearing in collected editions of his work. As the poem’s title indicates, ‘September 1, 1939’ was written in early September 1939 – and although Auden didn’t actually write it in a New York bar, he was living in New York at this time (having moved there from England only months earlier). September 1, 1939 was the day on which Nazi Germany invaded Poland, causing the outbreak of the Second World War. Because the poem has resonated with so many readers (in both Auden’s own century and ours), and yet Auden himself came to detest it so strongly, ‘September 1, 1939’ requires some analysis.
The metre of ‘September 1, 1939’: loosely, it’s iambic trimeter but with numerous variations and substitutions (the first line is two iambs followed by an anapaest; the second and third lines are regular iambic trimeter; the fourth contains an anapaestic substitution in the first foot; etc.). The choice of verse form is revealing, because it is allusive: it is, more or less, the same stanza form and metre that W. B. Yeats had used in his poem ‘Easter 1916’ (note that both poems have as their titles specific points in history, without naming the events they are primarily about). Yeats’s poem is about the Easter Rising of April 1916 in Dublin.
Like Yeats, Auden is aware that he is living through a watershed moment in history and is pondering what it means for the future: in Auden’s case, that what ‘Exiled Thucydides knew’ (writing about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC) we ‘must suffer … all again’. In summary, throughout ‘September 1, 1939’ there’s a sense of the world lapsing back into barbarism and violence with Hitler’s attempt to expand the Nazi empire, and a feeling that whole nations have swallowed the manipulative rhetoric used by ‘dictators’ to bend people to their will.
Some of the names and other references in Auden’s poem need glossing. The reference to Luther in the second stanza links what is going on in 1930s Germany under Hitler to the strong history of German Protestantism, stretching right back to the Reformation and Martin Luther (1483-1546), who started the Reformation in 1517. Linz is where Adolf Hitler was raised: ‘what occurred at Linz’ is a nod to the way that historians and biographers try to explain how ‘monsters’ are made by looking at what happened in that person’s childhood, i.e. what made Hitler into ‘A psychopathic god’.
Auden, however, says he can see a simpler explanation: ‘Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return’ (probably a nod to the excessive reparations Germany was made to make under the Treaty of Versailles following their defeat in WWI; these led to severe economic recession in Germany, feeding the rise of Nazism).
‘Mad Nijinsky’ refers to the Russian ballet dancer (who was diagnosed with schizophrenia), who turned on his former lover and manager, Sergei Diaghilev, and wrote resentfully about Diaghilev – whom he blamed for destroying his dance career – in his diary.
Auden later disowned ‘September 1, 1939’, calling the rhetoric of the poem ‘too high-flown’ and dismissing it as ‘dishonest’, a ‘forgery’, and ‘trash’ which he was ‘ashamed to have written’. To this day, it doesn’t feature in his Collected Poems. Why might this be? Is the language Auden uses really too ‘high-flown’? What about Auden’s pronouncement that ‘We must love one another or die’? (Auden disliked this line, saying that ‘or’ should have been ‘and’.) Different readers will come to different conclusions and offer varying interpretations, but the poem endures.
A curious postscript to ‘September 1, 1939’ as a new century dawned: in the wake of another terrifyingly momentous event, September 11, 2001, a number of leading New York daily newspapers reprinted Auden’s poem in its entirety on their front pages. Although this poem was written about a particular moment in twentieth-century history, it is also about fateful moments in history (war, terror, a decisive event triggering a worldwide shift) more generally, as its nod back to Yeats’s poem, and reference to Thucydides, imply.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.