Monday, September 23, 2013

Monday's Poetry: "September 1, 1939"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

W.H. Auden is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.  The old poet with his ubiquitous cigarette passed away forty years ago this month.

What follows is one of Auden's best known works.  September 1, 1939 was his reflections on the day that World War II began - the day Hitler's forces invaded Poland.  The most memorable and quoted line in the poem is the last one of the next to the last stanza:  "We must love one another or die."  It is a line that Auden deleted at one time, and changed at another - but history - and publisher's - have chosen to preserve it for its startling clarity and important message.

The novelist, E.M. Forster, famously commented about Auden, "Because he once wrote 'We must love one another or die' he can command me to follow him." 

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 and 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 offense
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 those schoolchildren learn, 
Those to whom evil is donenn
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 a 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
Abotu 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 the 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 of 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.

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