“September 1, 1939” opens with the news that Hitler has invaded Poland.
I’m sitting in one of the dives
As clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
Circulates on the luminous
And the darkened lands of the earth,
Obsession with our private lives:
The unmentionable smell of death
September Night Offense.
The poem does what powerful poems can do: it fuses eloquent language with striking imagery in rhythmic, clipped sentences. Auden’s terse lines are in iambic trimeter and handled with a skill that makes for memorable phrases that get stuck in the ear, always a passage to the brain. It is not surprising that this poem has been quoted so much over the years. Published in the New Republic six weeks after it was written, it was frequently anthologized and quoted by writers, scholars, and readers, including President Lyndon B. Johnson during his 1964 campaign. It is one of those poems that has entered the popular imagination — rare for poems of our time. It returned to the limelight after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was read on NPR. When I watched Russian tanks roll into Ukraine on TV and heard the sounds of explosions reported by CNN’s Matthew Chance around 11 a.m. Wednesday night, I went to my library and pulled out the poem of Auden.
What can poems give at such a time?
Although it opens with deep personal emotion, “September 1, 1939” moves into the political realm in three-beat lines that spin in the blink of an eye to capture the dictator’s megalomania. Hitler, Putin. Fill in the blank: “What a huge imago made / A psychopathic god.”
The language and the rhythmic couple call the story of an idea: “Exiled Thucydides knew/All that a speech can say/About democracy/And what dictators do.
Amid news of violence and omens of disaster, Auden watches the everyday world go on: “Faces along the bar/Hold on to their average day:/The lights must never go out,/The music must always play.” And, when the day comes “From conservative darkness/In ethical life/Dense commuters come,/Repeating their morning vows;/”I’ll be true to woman,/I’ll focus more on my work.”
Auden grasps the unbearable contradiction between the need to carry on as usual while being torn between the urgency of disaster elsewhere. The tension is not unlike what many Americans and people around the world are feeling as Putin unleashes violence against Ukraine.
As a good ironist, the poet recognizes his limits – perhaps the limits of all art – when he confesses “All I have is a voice / To undo the bent lie”. But the poem has the power to connect us to the moral urgency of a historical moment. Auden’s lines give readers a sense of being part of a greater whole, a collective sense of species, even as things seem to be spiraling out of control.
Auden found the last line of the penultimate stanza didactic and so redacted it in his later revision, but it remains the poem’s most famous line, a kind of secular witty epigram: “We must love each other or pass away “.
The last stanza is a call to resistance and to the power of the human community:
Defenseless under the night
Our stupefied world lies;
Flash out wherever the Just
Can I, composed like them
In recent days, Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s megalomaniacal and criminal acts of aggression has made urgent a question that Auden’s poem implicitly asks: who are we and what are our responsibilities to our fellow human beings in times of violence and war ? The final image also poses a question: what is an “affirming flame”? If poems, like all literary forms, are what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living,” then “September 1, 1939” challenges us all to find a way to be an assertive flame in the face of “the ‘unmentionable smell of death’. which offends our February night.