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Wh Auden September 1 1939 Analysis Essay

The poet sits in a dive bar on 52nd Street, disappointed in the bad decade of the “low dishonest” 1930s. The decade and recent events have consumed people’s private lives. The odor of death “offends” the night of September 1, 1939.

Future scholars will describe how a cultural problem led from the time of Martin Luther to the time of Hitler’s hometown of Linz, a pattern which has driven the German culture into madness. Meanwhile, schoolchildren and the average person know well enough: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides knew about dictators and so-called democracy, their “elderly rubbish” of arguments that enable the dictator to cause pain, mismanagement, and grief while an apathetic population permits it. It is happening again in 1939.

The “neutral” New York skyscrapers demonstrate the power of “Collective Man” to accomplish great things, but America is in a “euphoric dream” of neutrality as war breaks out in Europe. America looks “out of the mirror” and sees the face of imperialism and the “international wrong.”

Normal people continue their average American days, keeping up the music and keeping on the lights. Though we make ourselves seem comfortable and at home, we are actually “lost in a haunted wood,” like children who are afraid of the dark and “have never been happy or good.”

The most pompous pro-war speeches spouted by “Important Persons” are not as base as our own jealous wish “to be loved alone.” This is a normal error and not just what “mad Nijinsky wrote / About Diaghilev” (after Diaghilev left him for Diaghilev’s lover); each person selfishly wants what she or he cannot have.

Commuters come from their “conservative dark” families into “the ethical life” of the public sphere, vowing to improve their lives. Meanwhile, “helpless governors” make their “compulsory” political moves now that war has broken out. Do they have any choice? They seem deaf to advice and unable to speak for those who have no voice.

Yet, all the poet has is his voice, which can expose the lie of neutrality rhetoric and the romanticism of the “man-in-the-street,” who goes along with the authorities and enjoys his “sensual” pleasures. To the poet, there is no “State,” but we are all interconnected and rely on each other. That is, “We must love one another or die.” (Auden’s later version reads: “We must love one another and die.”)

While the world slumbers, flashes of hope come from “the Just,” exchanging their messages. The poet seeks to be among them, human all the same, troubled by despair but still holding up “an affirming flame.”

Analysis

“September 1, 1939,” one of Auden’s most famous and oft-quoted poems, gained new prominence after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Curiously, though, Auden came to dislike this work, finding it “dishonest” and a “forgery.” He had his publisher include a note that the work was “trash he was ashamed to have written”; he also tried to keep it out of later collections of his poems. It is unclear why he felt so embarrassed by the poem. It has remained a staple of Auden’s work as well as an inspiring call to speak out in hope for justice and brotherhood despite times of war or terror.

The poem was written in 1939, just as German troops invaded Poland and began the Second World War. It was published in The New Republic that year and included in the collection Another Time the following year. Hitler’s invasion of Poland declared his military strength and flouted the agreement of the Munich Conference, shocking the entire world. The United States did not enter the war until 1941.

Auden begins his poem with the speaker sitting in a dive bar in New York City. Hitler’s actions have brought the “low dishonest decade” to a close, bringing “the unmentionable odour of death” to the September evening. He contemplates Hitler’s psychology using a Jungian concept—a “huge imago,” a psychological concept of the idealized self—and he imagines that historians will explain how German culture, perhaps starting with Martin Luther’s Protestant shakeup of Christianity hundreds of years earlier, led Germans to go along with Hitler’s psychopathic evil.

Yet, even the average person perceives the basic human patterns in the story: doing evil to someone leads that person to do evil in return. More than 2,000 years ago, Thucydides saw how dictators abuse an apathetic population to accomplish their ends, even in a democracy like Germany (or the United States). The same pattern keeps occurring. Perhaps this is a reason why Auden’s nine stanzas all have the same pattern of eleven lines that, while they do not rhyme, tend to repeat vowel and consonant sounds at the ends of lines (for example, the last four lines of stanza 1: earth/lives/death/night; stanza 2: know/learn/done/return; stanza 3: away/pain/grief/again). The story told here is not new.

In the fourth stanza the poet focuses on New York City, a paragon of modern capitalism, which has yielded “blind skyscrapers” that “proclaim / the strength of Collective Man” via competition and diversity rather than coordinated socialistic efforts. Yet, one cost of this social blindness is isolationism. People cling to their average lives; they are content to pursue their happy dreams, and they keep the music playing and the lights on so that they never see how morally lost they are. They trust “Authority” (the government or the capitalist telling them to remain neutral for their own good), which fits their selfish and sensual desires to fulfill their goals regardless of what is happening in Europe.

What is missing is awareness of this basic human jealousy that privileges oneself over others, leading not only to evil but also complacency and apathy when evil is happening elsewhere, as in Europe. Meanwhile, politicians inevitably take advantage of these tendencies as the geopolitical “game” plays out.

In the last two stanzas the poetic voice tries to overcome the problems identified in the previous stanza: “Who can reach the deaf, / Who can speak for the dumb?” Auden scholar James Persoon notes that the speaker only has one voice with which to “undo the folded lie” that humans are too jealous to seek justice.

Yet, the speaker is one of many people who provide “points of light” like this poem. In contrast to the points of light that come from a firing gun, the poem’s rhetorical points “flash out” as a message exchanged with other members of “the Just,” those who seek justice. Although each person writes selfishly and separately, “dotted everywhere,” poems about solidarity and justice create a kind of solidarity. In this way, the network of poems “ironically” emerges spontaneously, mirroring the network of New York skyscrapers which emerge without coordination and make the city.

The poet knows he is just like everyone else, “composed like them / Of Eros [alluding to the god of love, representing the passions] and dust [alluding to Biblical passages about human mortality and returning to the natural dust of the earth upon death].” It is a time of “negation and despair” for anyone who is paying attention to Europe. Nonetheless, the speaker hopes his words can show “an affirming flame” of human connectedness and concern.

If Auden’s speaker is speaking against apathetic neutrality in the face of German aggression, is he calling for the United States to go to war? Or is the role of such a poet to affirm common humanity and justice along with the others who are “Just,” taking a prophetic route while hoping that people will turn from their selfish ways? When Auden changed the key line from the idealistic “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die,” the meaning seems to have changed to express that going to war in the name of love was, in the case of the Second World War, perhaps in hindsight, justified.

The poem, 1st September 1939 by W.H. Auden, was occasioned by Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September, 1939. In this poem, the poet expresses his shock at the news. In the present stanza, he expresses his view that Germany alone is not to blame for starting the Great War. He says that correct research into the thinking of the German people from Martin Luther’s times to the present age can lead us to the conclusion that the Germans are great lovers of national freedom, self-respect, and national honour. The researches can also reveal the whole nature of the offence which lies embedded in the Versailles Treaty of 1918 and which has inflicted a great psychological wound on the German mind.

 

1st September 1939 Analysis

I sit in one of the dives

(…)

A psychopathic god:

The poem can be read in full here.

Its violent reaction has now driven the Germany nation mad with anger and with a thirst for revenge. Researches should also be made to find out what wrongs Hitler suffered during his childhood and youth at Linz, a town in Upper Austria, and what great psychological wound his German nationalist mind incurred from the German defeat in the First World War (1914 to 1918) and from the Versailles Treaty. For those, psychological wounds have turned him into an insane German god. The poet implies that Nazi Germany and her dictator Adolf Hitler have been made almost insane by the psychological blows they have suffered.

I and the public know

(…)

To an apathetic grave;

In these lines, the poet expresses the view that demarcates and dictators have beguiled the people since ancient times. He says that having been exiled from Athens, Thucydides wrote a critical history of the Peloponnesian War (43 to 1408 B.C.). It was fought between the republic of Athens and that of Sparta. In  his book, he has described the nature of the speeches of democrats and dictators about democracy. He has d escribed the behaviour of ruling dictators, and also the nature of the serious looking nonsensical, promises they make to the people. Moreover, he has also commented on the nature of the common people. According to him, they are not only indifferent to politics, at heart, but are also intellectually dead. Auden implies that the nature of dictators and that of the people has not changed even today.

Analysed all in his book,

(…)

To make this fort assume

In this stanza, the poet says that invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany has shaken the Americans at heart, although outwardly they are indifferent to it. He says that all the activities of American life are going on as usual. They have not been disturbed by the Great War which has begun. The indifference of Americans shows that they feel themselves as safe and secure as one feels at home. But the Americans Govt, is calm and quiet lest the Americans should see the dangerous situation they are in. As a matter of fact, the American s and Europeans are like the children who have got lost in a haunted wood.

And they are afraid of the night which has come on them. He adds that they have never been happy with their lot, and never good to one another. W.H. Auden implies that they are children because they are still immature and start fighting with one another. They are  in a haunted wood, because all of them are still like wild beasts to one another. The night which has come on them is the night of the present World War. That they have never been happy with their lot is evident from their imperialistic policies. And they are not good as evident from the fact that they exploit the poor and the weak     at home and abroad.

The furniture of home;

(…)

Who can speak for the dumb?

In the above lines, the poet describes the nature of the task his poetic voice has to perform in America. He says that he possesses only his poetic voice, and no other power, to undo the evil beliefs prevalent in America and elsewhere. The first evil is the conservative ignorance of the religious-minded. Then there is the fictitious lie of individualism. Its doctrine declares that nothing exists but the individual self. This doctrine rules over the mind of the materialistic man-in-the-street. The third evil theory is the lie of authoritarianism. It has declared state authority to b as high as the sky. And it has set state authority above the individual’s liberty. Auden mentioned evils ruling over the minds of the people. And he has to contradict them by means of his poetic power.

All I have is a voice

(…)

And the lie of Authority

In these foregoing lines, the poet says that his poetic voice has to undo the fictitious doctrines of authoritarianism and individualism. In this stanza, he argues against them. He says that the State has no existence independent of the people. The State authority is therefore the authority of the people. It is, therefore to be used for the good of the people, not to suppress their liberty. The state authority has no natural basis for itself. For example, the policeman is the unit of the State authority.

But he is as much subject to hunger as a citizen. The theory of Authoritarianism is hence unfounded. It is a falsehood. As regards individualism, no one can live by oneself, without the company or help of others. Evidently the theory of absolute individualism is also baseless, and an outright lie. The poet then concludes that all the citizens and also the citizens and the man in power, must love one another as equals; or else they shall live and die, in the misery of selfish love.

Whose buildings grope the sky:

(…)

Show an affirming flame.

In these last lines of the poem, the poet says that today the people of the world have no armour of faith against the attack of the devil. They also lie stupefied in the night of ignorance. Yet some righteous men still illuminate the dark of their ignorance with flashes of their spiritual light, here and there, now and then. The poet says that, like the righteous, he is also made up of a righteous soul and physical body. He is also surrounded by the people of the same negation of faith and despair.

He, therefore prays to God that he may also fill his poetry with spiritual light like them. He prays that the elements of his spiritual light may be a positive flame on faith in God and His ways, and also the selfless universal love called agape. The poet implies that he intends to compose poetry of religious theme. It will be filled with spiritual light whose elements are faith and selfless Christian brotherly universal love.

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