Thursday, September 11, 2014

W.H. Auden's 9-11 Poem...Written in 1939


As we  remember the horrific events of September 11, 2001 we remember a poem. In the aftermath of 9/11 people turned to poetry to express their anger, their grief, their disbelief at the madness of it all. One of the poems that people turned to in those uncertain times was a poem written by W. H. Auden. The poem was written in September...1939.

The poem, September 1, 1939, marks the onset of World War II and first appeared in The New Republic the following month and in book form in Auden's 1940 collection of poems, Another Time. The poem echoes the W.B. Yeats poem from another war, Easter, 1916 that brings to life the Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland. Auden's poem earned the poet acclaim, especially for the line, "We must love one another or die."


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.


W.H. Auden


That line, "We must love one another or die" troubled Auden to no end and he omitted the stanza that includes the line in his 1945, The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden. The poem never again appeared in Auden's collection of poems. He amended the line for The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse in 1955 to read, "We must love one another and die" before disowning the poem altogether and refusing to allow it to be anthologized in any form.

The poem returned to the public consciousness in President Lyndon Johnson's famous 1964 Daisy television commercial which shows a young girl picking petals off a flower before a mushroom cloud goes off as Johnson's voice warns that, "We must love each other, or we must die." It is coincidental that the commercial came out months after Auden's famous elegy for Johnson's predecessor, President John F. Kennedy.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 National Public Radio began referencing September 1, 1939 on its airwaves with stanzas omitted that did not reflect on the events of September 11, 2001. Major newspapers across America reprinted the poem in its entirety within their pages and the poem became a popular topic in online forums as people tried to make sense of what they could not make sense.

America had turned to poetry for answers.