Frontline poetry: 1st September 1939

Submitted by AWL on 22 December, 2002 - 4:03

The title of WH Auden's not greatly political, but effective poem is the date Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later the whole of Europe was at war. This poem - we print five of the stanzas here - was much quoted in the wake of September 11th. English born, Auden became an American citizen in 1946. Auden was Communist Party sympathiser and some of his political language often seems Stalinoid. Auden's description of the shocking unreality of war remains very powerful.

1st September 1939

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
…
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home:
Lest we should see who we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
…
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

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.

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