September 1, 1939

September 1, 1939
by W.H. Auden

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.

Read the whole poem here.

September 1, 1939 was Auden’s reaction to Germany’s invasion of Poland, which touched off World War II. Auden had moved from England to the United States that year, and had just finished off a cross-country trip by bus. Ineligible for military service in either country and suspended between two cultures, his sole power was not as a citizen but as a poet. And it seems like in these strange interstitial days, when I just last night received an email from President Obama himself declaring the end of the American combat mission in Iraq, Auden’s shout in the darkness works as well as ever.

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.

(Photograph of Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (right) by Carl Van Vechten, February 6, 1939.)

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1 Comment to September 1, 1939

  1. Muzz's Gravatar Muzz
    September 1, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this timely reminder…

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