Wednesday, 20 May 2009

September 1, 1939

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.
Auden wrote this poem in the first days of WWII, hence the title. For me, this poem is a clear descendant of Eliot's Waste Land - the tonal links are strong, even if Auden is the more penetrable poet. The first two-thirds of the poem focus on the everyday frustration, felt by individuals and the collective alike, at the horrors and hypocrisies of interfering war. But unlike the total desolation of Eliot, Auden offers his reader a hope for the future - a truth for us all: 'we must love one another or die.'

I heard this read last night at the Josephine Hart poetry night, which I've mentioned before in a post. I didn't think the Auden evening was as good as the Larkin evening, but that's in part because I don't respond much to Auden as an aural poet. Auden's need to convey truths means that he sometimes sacrifices aurality for sentiment. September 1, 1939 was one of the few poems which really made an impression, in tone, truths, and sound. Listening to the early lines I thought how contemporary the resonances of this poem were even today, with the general pessimism of society about the state of politics and economics: 'Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth, / Obsessing our private lives.' Auden could be poetically paraphrasing our moral judgement of City Boys with: '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'

But then you come to lines, like: 'The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night' or 'Faces along the bar / Cling to their average day: / The lights must never go out, / The music must always play.' This was where I stopped thinking that you could make these kind of modern comparisons. How could I possibly compare what must have been the electrically uncertain and fearful atmosphere of 1939 to the comparative innocence of what we're faced with now. Yes, people are losing their jobs and the economy isn't doing as well as it was five years ago, but we aren't sending an entire generation of men to war. Personally I'd rather have to comfort my friends who have lost their jobs than comfort my friends sending their boyfriends and husbands off to war. I know it sounds trite to break it down in such a way, but I wonder why we can't take all of the nostalgia for simpler, purer times and channel this desire into something productive and positive.

And while the following lines could easily be applicable to today's London-bound commuters, trudging to work contemplating tedious self-improvements, the context of WWII raises these meaningless resolutions into a kind of mass cultural affirmation that life must go on : 'The dense commuters come, / Repeating their morning vow; / "I will be true to the wife,/ I'll concentrate more on my work,"'

But even more impressive in light of the fear and darkness that must have been pervasive toward the end of '39, is the sense of hope, uplift and affirmation - but without the patronising tone of Britain's 'keep calm and carry on' - present in the last, beautiful, stanza:

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:

David Grove said...

Strange, isn't it, the intermittent absence of "aurality" in so formidable a master of prosody? (Didn't Dylan Thomas, writing about "the death of the ear," point out that "much of Auden sounds awful"?) Yet the Yeatsian trimeter of "September 1, 1939" is mellifluous and danceable. I think I prefer Auden's earlier, obscure, Riding-esque poems, however. I've always kind of liked his late emendation of "We must love one another or die."

A Larkin-loving phase coincided with a melancholy period in my life. Not only was I fond of reciting "Wants" and "This Be The Verse," I also had identification fantasies about Larkin! Why did I imagine myself a bald, stuttering, misanthropic, right-wing, bebop-hating librarian, unhappy in love? I don't understand it now.