By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘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.
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.