The poet sits in a dive bar on 52nd Street, disappointed in the bad decade of the “low dishonest” 1930s. The decade and recent events have consumed people’s private lives. The odor of death “offends” the night of September 1, 1939.
Future scholars will describe how a cultural problem led from the time of Martin Luther to the time of Hitler’s hometown of Linz, a pattern which has driven the German culture into madness. Meanwhile, schoolchildren and the average person know well enough: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides knew about dictators and so-called democracy, their “elderly rubbish” of arguments that enable the dictator to cause pain, mismanagement, and grief while an apathetic population permits it. It is happening again in 1939.
The “neutral” New York skyscrapers demonstrate the power of “Collective Man” to accomplish great things, but America is in a “euphoric dream” of neutrality as war breaks out in Europe. America looks “out of the mirror” and sees the face of imperialism and the “international wrong.”
Normal people continue their average American days, keeping up the music and keeping on the lights. Though we make ourselves seem comfortable and at home, we are actually “lost in a haunted wood,” like children who are afraid of the dark and “have never been happy or good.”
The most pompous pro-war speeches spouted by “Important Persons” are not as base as our own jealous wish “to be loved alone.” This is a normal error and not just what “mad Nijinsky wrote / About Diaghilev” (after Diaghilev left him for Diaghilev’s lover); each person selfishly wants what she or he cannot have.
Commuters come from their “conservative dark” families into “the ethical life” of the public sphere, vowing to improve their lives. Meanwhile, “helpless governors” make their “compulsory” political moves now that war has broken out. Do they have any choice? They seem deaf to advice and unable to speak for those who have no voice.
Yet, all the poet has is his voice, which can expose the lie of neutrality rhetoric and the romanticism of the “man-in-the-street,” who goes along with the authorities and enjoys his “sensual” pleasures. To the poet, there is no “State,” but we are all interconnected and rely on each other. That is, “We must love one another or die.” (Auden’s later version reads: “We must love one another and die.”)
While the world slumbers, flashes of hope come from “the Just,” exchanging their messages. The poet seeks to be among them, human all the same, troubled by despair but still holding up “an affirming flame.”
“September 1, 1939,” one of Auden’s most famous and oft-quoted poems, gained new prominence after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Curiously, though, Auden came to dislike this work, finding it “dishonest” and a “forgery.” He had his publisher include a note that the work was “trash he was ashamed to have written”; he also tried to keep it out of later collections of his poems. It is unclear why he felt so embarrassed by the poem. It has remained a staple of Auden’s work as well as an inspiring call to speak out in hope for justice and brotherhood despite times of war or terror.
The poem was written in 1939, just as German troops invaded Poland and began the Second World War. It was published in The New Republic that year and included in the collection Another Time the following year. Hitler’s invasion of Poland declared his military strength and flouted the agreement of the Munich Conference, shocking the entire world. The United States did not enter the war until 1941.
Auden begins his poem with the speaker sitting in a dive bar in New York City. Hitler’s actions have brought the “low dishonest decade” to a close, bringing “the unmentionable odour of death” to the September evening. He contemplates Hitler’s psychology using a Jungian concept—a “huge imago,” a psychological concept of the idealized self—and he imagines that historians will explain how German culture, perhaps starting with Martin Luther’s Protestant shakeup of Christianity hundreds of years earlier, led Germans to go along with Hitler’s psychopathic evil.
Yet, even the average person perceives the basic human patterns in the story: doing evil to someone leads that person to do evil in return. More than 2,000 years ago, Thucydides saw how dictators abuse an apathetic population to accomplish their ends, even in a democracy like Germany (or the United States). The same pattern keeps occurring. Perhaps this is a reason why Auden’s nine stanzas all have the same pattern of eleven lines that, while they do not rhyme, tend to repeat vowel and consonant sounds at the ends of lines (for example, the last four lines of stanza 1: earth/lives/death/night; stanza 2: know/learn/done/return; stanza 3: away/pain/grief/again). The story told here is not new.
In the fourth stanza the poet focuses on New York City, a paragon of modern capitalism, which has yielded “blind skyscrapers” that “proclaim / the strength of Collective Man” via competition and diversity rather than coordinated socialistic efforts. Yet, one cost of this social blindness is isolationism. People cling to their average lives; they are content to pursue their happy dreams, and they keep the music playing and the lights on so that they never see how morally lost they are. They trust “Authority” (the government or the capitalist telling them to remain neutral for their own good), which fits their selfish and sensual desires to fulfill their goals regardless of what is happening in Europe.
What is missing is awareness of this basic human jealousy that privileges oneself over others, leading not only to evil but also complacency and apathy when evil is happening elsewhere, as in Europe. Meanwhile, politicians inevitably take advantage of these tendencies as the geopolitical “game” plays out.
In the last two stanzas the poetic voice tries to overcome the problems identified in the previous stanza: “Who can reach the deaf, / Who can speak for the dumb?” Auden scholar James Persoon notes that the speaker only has one voice with which to “undo the folded lie” that humans are too jealous to seek justice.
Yet, the speaker is one of many people who provide “points of light” like this poem. In contrast to the points of light that come from a firing gun, the poem’s rhetorical points “flash out” as a message exchanged with other members of “the Just,” those who seek justice. Although each person writes selfishly and separately, “dotted everywhere,” poems about solidarity and justice create a kind of solidarity. In this way, the network of poems “ironically” emerges spontaneously, mirroring the network of New York skyscrapers which emerge without coordination and make the city.
The poet knows he is just like everyone else, “composed like them / Of Eros [alluding to the god of love, representing the passions] and dust [alluding to Biblical passages about human mortality and returning to the natural dust of the earth upon death].” It is a time of “negation and despair” for anyone who is paying attention to Europe. Nonetheless, the speaker hopes his words can show “an affirming flame” of human connectedness and concern.
If Auden’s speaker is speaking against apathetic neutrality in the face of German aggression, is he calling for the United States to go to war? Or is the role of such a poet to affirm common humanity and justice along with the others who are “Just,” taking a prophetic route while hoping that people will turn from their selfish ways? When Auden changed the key line from the idealistic “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die,” the meaning seems to have changed to express that going to war in the name of love was, in the case of the Second World War, perhaps in hindsight, justified.