W.H. Auden’s Poem, “September 1, 1939”

A neat photo of W.H. Auden.

Today feels apropos to do a poem related to war and its hell, given what’s going on with Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. The poem comes from W.H. Auden, a mid-20th century British-American poet. According to various summaries of him I’ve read, he was known for being both technically brilliant with his versatility in form, and for engaging in themes of a political, social and religious nature.

The poem I want to focus on is the one of a political/social theme, “September 1, 1939.”

If that date doesn’t jump out to you, that’s the date Nazi Germany (and the Soviet Union) invaded Poland, kicking off a chain-of-events that would become the Second World War. In the siege and occupation over the next month, 66,000 Poles would be killed, with another 133,700 wounded and 675,000 captured.

Auden’s poem was written in real-time, first published in The New Republic on Oct. 18, 1939.

It’s a rather long poem; please consider reading it in full here. I want to share the five lines that most spoke to me:

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.

Auden’s poem is surreal in that it’s a contemporary one, written on the eve of what would be a devastating, costly world war — and perhaps being a child during the first global war gave him a sense of how devastating it could be, if it continued to escalate — and that war, despite it being what one may think of as the natural state of man, still comes as a shock to the system, as surreal in its machinations, and as manifesting under the bright lights the rawest flaw humans possess. That, if war is underway, something must have gone terribly asunder. And yet, again, it’s also that natural state of man relative to our history. We’ve known more war and conquest as a species than we have a relative peace.

Written more than 80 years ago, Auden’s poem feels prescient today, obviously, because of the Russian/Ukraine. A European land war in the year 2022 just doesn’t sit right. How can that be? Of course, there has been 30 years (and longer) of war in the Middle East and people don’t quite think of that as “abnormal,” but a land war in Europe, particularly involving a major power like Russia, certainly engenders a sense of incongruity with our modern sensibilities.

But you could have said the same thing in the 1930s about a European land war involving major powers! Especially because people were still alive who knew how bad the first global war was to society and perhaps could not envision replicating it on an even grander scale given the progression of military technology (i.e., ways to kill each other more efficiently) in the short time between the global wars.

Auden touches on this in his poem, “Obsessing our private lives; / The unmentionalable odour of death / Offends the September night.”

Nobody wants to take notice of the change in the air and that the change is death approaching. Partly because it surely was a familiar smell, especially to European noses and memories. Auden seems to despair at the cyclical nature of the “enlightened man” having to re-learn the lessons of pain, mismanagement and grief, and that we must suffer all of them again.

He analogizes this baseness of man to the strength of man, or “Collective Man,” with that of our skyscrapers. To co-opt another poem (my favorite actually), “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Despair indeed, as the juxtaposition only heightens the sense of how deeply backward war is.

Again, Auden shows the desperation in the poem by talking about how those in the bar he’s out “cling to their average day” and that the lights and music must never stop because if the mirage of civilization is done away with and we are forced to look at where we are, we will discover we are, “Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.”

War has a way of being revelatory and mirage-killing.

And so we get to the excerpt I shared above, which is Auden’s way of undoing the romantic lie we tell in our brains about states, about hunger, about our quarrels with each other, about the façade of skyscrapers which “grope the sky,” and that no man is an island.

Perhaps the biggest lie we tell (in my interpretation and extrapolation of the poem) is that love itself is a cheesy, lame capitulation of sorts, that it cannot be the answer to the flaw that rises like a poisoned stone in the esophagus of man.

But, as Auden states, we must love one another or die. No amount of lying to ourselves, even those of us sitting here in the year 2022, can will that fact away.

What do you think of this poem?

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