September 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden: Critical Appreciation

"September 1, 1939" was first published in the New Republic, on October 18, 1939, and was reprinted in the poet's collection of 1940, Another Time. This poem achieved a new eminence after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.The title of the poem “September 1, 1939” is the date of Hitler's invasion of Poland with which a decade of shameful political compromise came to an end and the long awaited war at last broke out.


Wystan Hugh Auden



Auden puts in it his concerns, fears and hopes. It is a poem written in the manner of Yeats's “Easter, 1916”. The poem emphasizes the need to establish the just society based on universal love which appears to be denied by self-love and a desire to be loved alone. Still, there is some faint hope of establishing such a society. The poet, although he also suffers from Eros (self-love) and troubled by the same 'negation' and 'despair', hopes to disseminate the message of universal love in which the ultimate hope for the survival of humanity lies. The poem ends in despair illuminated by a few sparks of hope.

The poem remains in the controversy for a long time. The poet himself in later years dismissed it as "not honest". But F.R. Leavis finds the poem good, which Auden felt 'not honest'-remained a puzzle. Poetic appreciation is a subjective exercise and appreciations vary. In this case Leavis was apparently wrong, or it may be that a poem may be good without being honest!

 The poem itself was able to capture the mood of the time; it was one of a low dishonest decade. Tracing the stages of history, it could be found out why the private malady of a boy named Hitler, became public in the forms of fascism, dictatorship and other maladies. The resultant situation which "has driven culture mad...The enlightenment driven away," brought an awareness that we must suffer all again.

The poem suffers from ambiguity of attitude which seems to founder on pessimism and hope. It is not clear who the just are on whom Auden pins his hope for the world. His cosmos is sharply divided into the unthinking masses and the crooked rulers and the third category of the just is left unexplained and unaccounted for. "It looks as though 'the just' are composed of isolated individuals who can do little more than exchange messages. One can sympathize with the mood of 'Negation and despair', and most people react favorable to the cautions optimism. Opinions will differ as to who the 'just' are, and how helpful their messages will prove without the popular support of some kind. Since Auden has already exposed the lies or weaknesses of Luther, Hitler, Germans, Collective Man, Imperialism, commuters, governors, bar-habitus, man-in-street, Authority, State, citizens and police, one does rather wonder who is left to compose the just. In the earlier poems he had seemingly condemned bourgeois society wholesale, as neurotic and socially sterile, pinning his hopes, however, on progressive forces. Now the condemned is even more widespread: it is Man himself (including Auden) who is composed of 'Eros and of dust'. The division into the 'Old gang and those how, in Spain', supported the 'Struggle' has disappeared. A possible way out of this impasse would be a faith in good people, good causes, and good movements, wherever they exist, within or outside any particular system. I cannot see that 'the just' implies such a faith. At all events the word itself, in its present context, remains vague."

“September 1, 1939” evidences more clearly the ideological turning point in Auden's development. The poem begins with the announcement of the end of "a low dishonest decade" as well as of the poet's own "clever hopes". The staring faces of imperialism and "international wrong" have completely disillusioned him about his previous humanistic hopes of a bright future. The sense of crisis in the present is deepened throughout the poem by such images as "Waves of anger and fear", "the unmentionable odor of death" and of lost "Children afraid of the night, who have never been happy or good." The tones of this moving lyric are the facts of Auden's recognition of "the error bred in the bone", and his quest of an "affirming flame" in a world of "Negation and despair". Ideologically, Auden is seen here at a crossroad where a turn to the acceptance of the Christian concept of the human position seems quite natural and easy.

An even more depressed state of mind is recorded in “September 1, 1939”. When this poem was written Auden could look back the defeat of the Republican cause in Spain, his own disillusionment with Communism, and the recent beginning of the Second World War. History had indeed said 'Alas' to the defeated. The 'thirties now seemed to him, after all, `a low dishonest decade' whose end was leaving 'the unmentionable odor of death' everywhere. In this poem as in others written in the same period, Auden was still 'political', but like many others of his literary generation had turned away from the activist idealism that marked his more whole-heartedly Marxian writings. He did not seek programmatic alternatives to the communist and the Popular Frontist set of his earlier thinking. Apparently the whole realm of political action had become more or less distasteful, and with it the need to identify with 'the people' that Communist thought stresses-although one can say 'The people, yes,' and follow out other lines of activism without being a Communist. Auden was still very much a political poet, but in a new way: he used the political situation as an incentive for coaching himself into a tragic vision of man's fate and for the incantation of Judaea- Christian-humanitarian pieties. The poem makes it quite clear that Auden is a poet who fully represents the time in his poems of the thirties and who lives in it "with the whole man, brain and heart, bag and baggage”. Auden is, no doubt, a spokesman of his age.

“September 1, 1939” has not lost entire touch with the Marxian explanation of events. Auden sees 'imperialism's face,' clearly enough in these events, and he sees that American civilization is based on 'the strength of Collective Man'. The dream of neutrality Americans cherished at the war's start is merely 'euphoric'. Action must follow. But all this is less a challenge than evidence of Original Sin and its subsequent effects. The poet is no longer an orator, now he is but a man sitting in a New York bar, 'uncertain and afraid', viewing himself and his fellows as ‘Lost in a haunted wood,’.

Finally, the poet prays for grace to 'show an affirming flame' in the darkness enveloping the world. The poem, like many of Auden's, foreshadows his later assertions of a more orthodox Christianity and of a basic social conservatism.

Written in the meter of W. B. Yeats's "Easter 1916", Auden's poem emulates as well the easy vernacular style of the earlier poem, a style capable of quick transformation into heroic rhetorical statement, or aphoristic generalization, or sudden showers of images- almost anything one might wish-and yet, whatever the modulations, maintaining always the integrity of tone. It is a style that, while taking a highly personal stance and tone, can utter abstract and public "truths". It is a plain style that, as Yeats in many other poems showed Auden, can readily assimilate every kind of reference, from exalted and distantly historical names.

Literary Spotlight

Summary of September 1, 1939

Biography of W. H. Auden

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