Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1, 1939

Seventy years ago today, the Nazis marched into Poland drawing most of Europe into the world’s second global conflict in 21 years. It would lead to indescribable suffering and changes so vast the after effects are still being felt seven decades later. What I want to explore today, though, is a great poem that was ostensibly inspired by that event and the culture that enabled it. And it is a quintessential New York poem written by a British expatriate, who had arrived in New York only eight months before, seeking to make a life for himself in America. The poem is September 1, 1939 and it was written by Wystan Hugh Auden, better known as W.H. Auden. He was already famous when he came to America, but there was something about the States and its less class-based social structure that he hoped would free him. In a sense, the passage to America is a turning point for him. Some of his best work was written during this very period and highly creative years lay ahead.

Auden sets the New York scene from the beginning of his poem:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

He then turns briefly to the history of accumulated wrongs that have brought about these dire times. One of the reasons that so many people turned to this poem in the wake of 9/11 has to do, in part, with this stanza’s conclusion which asserts: “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”

Auden follows with a section on the ways in which demagoguery inevitably recurs, and then brings us back with a jolt to the contemporary New York scene: “Into this neutral air/Where blind skyscrapers use/The full height to proclaim/the strength of Collective Man.” And adds that no one can live for long in this “euphoric dream.” The dive where he has been ostensibly ruminating also comes back into play. It is a place where are all our fears and forebodings can be forestalled at least for as long as we can keep the gin flowing and delay the long, lonely walk back home.

In the face of the lying, the deceit, the demagoguery, and the unabating hate, Auden offers only the simplest of responses, much quoted and much debated. It comes at the end of the second to last stanza and it reads: “We must love one another or die.” This line, recently celebrated by the late Morrie Schwartz in Tuesdays with Morrie, has also been maligned, particularly by Auden himself, who chose not to include this poem in his selected works because this offending line struck him as so illogical. No matter how much we love one another, he reasoned, we cannot escape death. Or did he mean die in a less literal and more collective sense? Who is to say?

And yet, it is the final stanza that probably should be best remembered. I include it here as the conclusion of this post for its beauty and its reminder that those ironic points of light may, in fact, remain our best defense against the forces of intolerance and consciencelessness.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.


  1. I think the line in question is very apt when we consider the human race, for without love and the respect that it implies, we are doomed to extinction. It got me thinking about the selfishness and arrogance of the so-called 'golden rule'. Am I to assume that others will inherently want what I want and should be treated as such? A little better is the Hillel version, Do NOT unto others what is hateful unto you, but still based on my views alone. Perhaps Rodney King had it right, "Can't we all just get along?"
    So, if I can get from WH Auden to Rodney King responding to this blog post, Third New York must be 'showing an affirming flame."

  2. Thank you, db, for an especially insightful, moving, and encompassing comment.

  3. It’s great to see good information being shared and also to see fresh, creative ideas that have never been done before.