Friday, September 12, 2008

September 1, 1939.

Yesterday I was slated to teach a poem and an essay by W. H. Auden. At the last moment, I decided that since it was the anniversary that it was, I might rather have my class discuss "September 1, 1939" than the poem that I had put on the syllabus.

I was thinking about how this poem, which Auden wrote about the invasion of the Poland and the beginning of World War II, had been widely read, recited, reprinted, circulated, and ruminated over in the days after September 11, 2001, and how readers then found that its thinking about what that day in 1939 meant applied also to their own thinking about what this new attack was, and how we would try to understand it.

My students, mind you, and like many people, have a difficult time imagining what the start of the war might have felt like, since they (and we) know so much now about other things going on Germany besides simple (?) imperial ambitions. But now that we are some seven years out from 9/11, I think we, too, have that strange ability to look back at an earlier moment, which was in a way the beginning of something, and reflect on our thoughts at the time.

Auden came to distrust the poem, and he kept it out of collections of his work because he feared that maybe his own response was too self-satisfied. In one republishing of the poem, he changed the line "We must love one another or die" to "We must love one another and die." Despite his disappointment in the poem, it seems to me to be a poem that demands we think harder about what we are doing, about the world we are making. Now, in this political season, that is a message we cannot hear frequently enough. (Though I wonder: is everyone really listening? No, I don't really wonder. It's more that I do not want to accept the answer.)

So, with apologies to Wystan, I reprint his poem here:

"September 1, 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.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

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 where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

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?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

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 comment:

Culture Vulture said...

Good post.