Precious little of the English poetry written in the 20th century has passed into the common stock of universally recognized literary reference. No doubt this is because so many of its makers chose to write free verse. Part of what makes traditional poetry (as well as the lyrics of popular songs) so readily quotable is that it lodges spontaneously in the memory because of its orderly rhyme and prosody. Whatever the merits of Robert Frost’s claim that writing free verse is like “playing tennis without a net,” it is far easier to get “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by heart than, say, Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.”
It makes sense, then, that after Frost and Philip Larkin, the modern English-speaking poet who is most often quoted should be W.H. Auden, a lifelong believer in the virtues of prosodic regularity. Not only is Auden easier to cite from memory because of the formal orderliness of his poems, but he frequently wrote verse whose subjects were of more obviously universal interest than the state of his psyche at any given moment. In keeping with his wish to become, “if possible, / a minor Atlantic Goethe,” he also wrote about public occasions ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the deaths of Freud and Yeats, and did so in a way that was at once beautiful and quotably pithy (“You were silly like us: your gift survived it all”). All of this helped to make Auden, in Edmund Wilson’s striking turn of phrase, “one of the most edible, one of the most satisfactory of contemporary writers in verse.” His mature poems were, almost without exception, accessible to the common reader.
Never did Auden employ his gift of accessibility more effectively than in “September 1, 1939,” the poem he wrote immediately after Nazi Germany started World War II by invading Poland. Published in the New Republic that October, “September 1, 1939” contains within its nine 11-line trimetric stanzas more widely quoted phrases than any of Auden’s other poems. It was there that he called the ’30s “a low dishonest decade,” described the stunned members of his generation as “lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good,” and—most memorably—warned his readers that they “must love one another or die.”
“September 1, 1939” continues to be cited on appropriate occasions, most recently after 9/11, when it flew around the Internet at the speed of light. But Auden made no secret of disliking it, going so far as to call it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written” in a 1967 letter and dismissing it as his “least favorite” of his own poems in a later interview with the Paris Review. He cut the entire eighth stanza (in which the line about the necessity to “love one another” appears) when he included “September 1, 1939” in his 1945 Collected Poems, and then said that it was “a damned lie” to say that “we must love one another or die” and changed “or” to “and.”
As a result of these varied negative feelings, the Auden scholar Edward Mendelsohn chose to omit “September 1, 1939” from the revised edition of Collected Poems he edited in 1976, three years after the poet’s death. Yet the original version continues to be read and quoted, even in preference to Auden’s own revised version. Indeed, it was included by Mendelsohn in the shorter volume of the poet’s Selected Verse he edited three years later, declaring “September 1, 1939” to be “memorable enough to survive all of Auden’s interference.”
A poem with so knotty a history is a natural subject for illuminating book-length discussion, and Ian Sansom’s September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem would appear to fill the bill.1 Compact and chatty but packed with detail, it seeks (in the author’s words) to “demonstrate how a poem gets produced, consumed and incorporated into people’s lives.” This is a worthy goal, and to a not-inconsiderable degree Sansom’s study achieves it. Alas, Sansom, a British radio broadcaster and mystery writer, is a sickeningly coy stylist, at once self-important and self-deprecating (“I was in the slow learners’ class in school and seem to be a slow learner still”). As a result, his book, in which he unconvincingly explains on every other page why he is unworthy to write about so great a poem, puts the reader in mind of a saying of Golda Meir, “Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.”
What makes September 1, 1939 readable in spite of its flaws is that much of it is devoted to a close reading of the poem after which it is named, one in which all of Auden’s sometimes-obscure references are explained and the poem itself precisely fixed in time and place.1 And Sansom is no less capable of making broader statements that are similarly convincing, one of them being his explanation of how the poem survived its author’s after-the-fact tinkering: Auden “may have attempted to hack up the poem and destroy it—but readers have saved it from dismemberment and death, time and time again, rediscovering it, reclaiming it.”
Given sufficient patience to put up with Sansom’s self-aggrandizing rambling, one will come away from September 1, 1939 having learned a great deal about what he rightly describes as “a poem that still reverberates with meaning and controversy, a poem that readers return to at times of personal and national crisis.” What he does not give us, though, is an unequivocal statement of what the poem means, partly because “September 1, 1939” is not without its patches of unclarity, but also, one suspects, because he himself is not fully at ease with its meaning.
Auden’s understanding of the world around him was outstripped at first by the uncanny virtuosity with which he was able to depict it. T.S. Eliot, who recognized his phenomenal talent early on and was one of the first people to publish Auden’s work in his professional capacity as an editor for Faber & Faber, said as much at the time in a letter to a mutual friend: “I chiefly worry about Auden’s ethical principles and convictions, not about his technical ability; or rather, I think that if a man’s ethical and religious views and convictions are feeble or limited and incapable of development, then his technical development is restricted.”
Significantly, Eliot’s letter was written in 1930, the year in which Faber published Auden’s first “official” volume of poetry and in which, according to Auden himself, he “began to read newspapers.” It was in the same year that the 23-year-old poet, angered by the ineffectuality of inter-war English liberalism, started to engage in earnest with politics. Formidably intelligent but emotionally immature, he was inclined by temperament to try on positions in public and addicted to issuing excitingly worded but ill-considered ex cathedra pronouncements on all manner of subjects. Characteristically, he embraced left-wing politics with more excitement than prudence, declaring himself to be in sympathy with Marxism and the Communist Party and spending seven weeks in 1937 traveling throughout Spain in the hope of doing some kind of unspecified work in support of the left-wing Republican government. On his return, he published “Spain,” a pro-Republican poem in which he ostentatiously took the side of “the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.”
George Orwell, who had spent more time in Spain and understood more clearly what he saw there, excoriated Auden for that pronunciamento, tartly observing that “Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” It was, in any case, a stance that Auden would quickly come to regret, having come to the conclusion that poetry, as he wrote two years later, “makes nothing happen,” least of all the kind written to serve propagandistic ends.
A mystical experience Auden underwent in 1933 had already inspired him to distrust the adequacy of purely secular solutions to the world’s trials, and he instead embraced an idiosyncratic but nonetheless genuine brand of Christianity. “You know, it just doesn’t mean anything to me anymore—the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-fascist struggle. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful,” the novelist Christopher Isherwood, Auden’s friend and sometime collaborator, said to him in 1939, to which Auden replied, “Neither can I.”
In the hope of breaking free from the rigid grip of left-wing ideology and the enervating futility of old-fashioned English liberalism, Auden and Isherwood emigrated to the U.S. in January 1939. Contrary to the angry assumptions of many of their former countrymen—including Anthony Powell, who referred to Auden thereafter as “that shit,” and Evelyn Waugh, who parodied the two men as “Parsnip and Pimpernell” in his wartime novel Put Out More Flags (1942)—they did not flee England in order to escape the trials of war. Deeply disturbed by Europe’s inability to resist the rise of Fascism and no longer convinced (if they ever had been) that Communism offered a satisfactory alternative, they had come to the conclusion that England no longer had anything affirmative to offer—but that America did.
Auden thereafter embraced his new country in all its proliferating vitality, becoming an American citizen and settling into a permanent, quasi-marital relationship with Chester Kallman, a young American poet whom he met shortly after his crossing. But the Atlantic Ocean offered him no surcease from the fast-spreading specter of European Fascism, and he looked on with horror as the British establishment continued to turn its face from the realities of life under Hitler. “It has taken Hitler to show us,” he would write in a 1941 review of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, “that liberalism is not self-supporting.”
Meanwhile, on the first day of September, he sat “in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street / Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade.” Then he went home to write the poem in which he transformed his own uncertainty and fear into a summa of his generation’s feelings about Europe’s second descent into the collective madness of war:
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
It is, one may safely assume, the grandly resonant generalities of “September 1, 1939” that offended their author’s postwar sensibility, in much the same way that Waugh would feel the need to prune away the “rhetorical and ornamental language” of the original version of Brideshead Revisited when he revised the novel in the early ’60s.
But Auden was wrong to think that “the whole poem…was infected with an incurable dishonesty.” Indeed, “September 1, 1939” is powerful above all because of its willingness to tell the unvarnished truth about England and Europe in the ’30s, and it is noteworthy that Sansom’s book retreats into a flurry of evasive obscurity just as Auden becomes most specific about what he has to say. For “September 1, 1939” is above all a repudiation of the “low dishonest” politics of the ’30s and an acknowledgment of the failure of left-wing ideology to provide an answer to the “psychopathic god” of Hitlerian nationalism.
Instead, as Auden had already written in The Prolific and the Devourer, a prose work left incomplete and unpublished in the summer of 1939 and cited only in passing by Sansom, the only way to make the world “impossible for Hitlers” is to “unite thought and intention and treat others with love and as equals.” This is what he means when he writes that “Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die.”
One may take leave to doubt that the author of September 1, 1939, whose own politics, as can be gathered from the book, are standard-issue contemporary British left-liberalism, would find such a position tenable. Yet it is what the author of “September 1, 1939,” chastened by the failure of his own ventures into politics and bolstered by his embrace of Christian faith, very plainly espouses therein—and it is the reason the poem continues to speak to readers who, like Auden before them, “cannot swallow another mouthful” of the totalitarian ideologies with which the repeating cycles of history present them time and again.
“May I,” he cries in its last lines, “Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.” That he succeeded in doing so in “September 1, 1939” is the reason the poem survived all his attempts to mute or suppress it, and why successive generations of readers continue to turn to it in times of trial. It is, and will always be, an affirming flame of hope.
1 Harper, 341 pages
2 Among other fascinating details, Sansom has managed to identify the specific gay bar on Manhattan’s 52nd Street in which the opening lines of “September 1, 1939” take place.