A Review of W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was written, as its title suggests, in the embryonic stages of World War II, arguably  the most brutal war of the 20th century. Originally from England, Auden speaks to a global community intoxicated with militarism, an ethos that would eventually lead to untold horrors in the form of fire-bombings, concentration camps, and the blinding explosions of the atomic bomb. As a result, Auden’s poem creates ample room for the citizens of empire states to reflect on the age-old maxim of Thrasymachus that “might makes right” and “justice is what is good for the stronger.” These unchallenged doctrines of power are more alive than ever in a time when unilateral invasions, assassinations, torture, and international lawlessness on the part of the US is met with deafening silence in virtually all respected media outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.

Mired in the savagery of a “low dishonest decade”, Auden chronicles the follies that have brought the most powerful nations in the word to this dangerous moment and more importantly what these follies reveal about the existential predicament of the modern man (or woman). One noteworthy statement that Auden makes in his indictment of the “international wrong” of the nation-state is the outright rejection of elementary moral principles of universality. This is graphically illustrated in the second stanza of the poem where he ruefully remarks how world leaders are unable to comprehend what schoolchildren easily understand: “those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

New York Times. September 1, 1939 issue

Moreover, Auden’s poem conveys a deep understanding of the complex power dynamics that have driven conflicts throughout history from the polities of ancient Greece to the current political bodies of the so-called developed West. In a critique of the corrosive effects of propaganda and how it’s utilized to undermine basic liberties, Auden comments that Thucydides “knew all that a speech can say about Democracy and what dictators do.” This reference to ancient Greek historian, Thucydides–who also famously said “large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must”– exposes the rank hypocrisy that is so prevalent in places of power; particularly, in those power centers that profess a commitment to democracy .

New York Times. March 18, 2003 issue.

Departing from this sharp attack on the hegemonic forces of violence and destruction, he then exposes how these imperial adventures are inextricably bound to the modern, profit-driven infrastructure at home. This connection is made transparent in the fourth stanza where Auden observes the poorly veiled egoism of “blind skyscrapers” celebrating the ascendancy of the “Collective Man”, a euphemism for the nascent corporate superstructure which at this time was just beginning to seduce the populations of the world with the “euphoric dream” of national supremacy. Auden couples this statement about the link between financial capital and imperialism with a more probing insight into the psychological disposition that must be cultivated within a population to allow this pathology of violence to persist. In deceptively enticing language, he portrays a culture that is possessed with a visceral fear of death, a culture where “the lights must never go out” and “the music must always play.” Trapped in this milieu of consumerism and strife, Auden, borrowing a phrase from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, laments the realization that the promises of industrialization and technological progress have left the civilizations of the world “lost in a haunted wood” as “children afraid of the night.”

Nonetheless, this “night” of civilization leaves room for glimmerings of light, glimmerings made more intense by the ethical forces of solidarity, compassion, and the perennial longing for mutual understanding. Auden’s ethical message is raised to dramatic heights in the eighth stanza where he boldly declares that the people of the world “must love one another or die.” This message, excised from later versions of the poem and shamelessly exploited by such warmongers as Lyndon B. Johnson, remains an unavoidable challenge for military superpowers like the United States which, at the moment, occupies two sovereign  nations in Iraq and Afghanistan in flagrant violation of international law.

Surely, the George Bushes, Richard Cheneys, Tony Blairs, and Barack Obamas of the world perceived these “ironic points of light” tirelessly striving to forge a world free of imperial arrogance and domination. But Auden’s readers should understand that the awareness of the rulers is not enough to bring about this preferred end as they continue, unimpeded, invading new countries and bombing new “enemies”, invariably aided by the “folded lie” of   newspapers and scholarly literature. For these reasons, Auden’s poem is a prescient work for our generation, a poem that compels the “affirming flame” of ordinary people to defy the “lie of Authority”, to choose the path of “Eros” before they decompose to dust.


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