There are many acclaimed poems that address themselves to the question of love. There are many that address themselves to the problems of war. There are others, both ancient and modern, that seem to speak directly to our contemporary condition, and to various crises, fears and threats of annihilation. There are poems that console, inspire and delight. And there are some poems – a very few – that do all of the above. WH Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, written 80 years ago, is an example.
“September 1, 1939” is undoubtedly one of the great poems of the 20th century, one that marks the beginning of the second world war and which readers have returned to at times of national and personal crisis. It is also a work that Auden came to despise, and whose troubled history therefore provides us with a rare glimpse of a writer in the act of self-invention and self-reinvention, and with a unique insight into the many ways in which a poem might be interpreted, misinterpreted, used, reused, appropriated and recycled. “September 1, 1939” is a lesson in how masterpieces are produced and consumed and become incorporated into people’s lives – how, in the words of another of Auden’s poems, “In Memory of WB Yeats”, the work of a poet becomes “modified in the guts of the living”.
The poem was first published on 18 October 1939 in the American magazine the New Republic. Auden had arrived in New York earlier that year with his friend and fellow writer Christopher Isherwood. The two men had quickly established themselves on the US literary scene: schmoozing, carousing, making contact with editors, and undertaking speaking and lecturing engagements. In April 1939, Auden had met an 18-year-old, Chester Kallman, 14 years his junior, who was to become his life partner: in the new world, Auden was making a new life for himself. Back in Europe, meanwhile, the storm clouds were gathering.
AJP Taylor, in his famous account in The Origins of the Second World War (1961), claimed that a second world war “was implicit since the moment when the first world war ended”. It became explicit at exactly 4.30am on Friday 1 September 1939, when the German panzer divisions that had been gathering on the Polish border began their advance. The front page headline of the New York Times that day tapped out the news in telegraphese: GERMAN ARMY ATTACKS POLAND; CITIES BOMBED, PORT BLOCKADED; DANZIG IS ACCEPTED INTO REICH. On 3 September the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation on the BBC: the country, he announced, was at war with Germany.
Auden’s poem consists of 99 lines, written in trimeters, divided into nine 11-line stanzas with a shifting rhyme scheme, each stanza being composed of just one sentence so that – as the poet Joseph Brodsky pointed out – the thought unit corresponds exactly to the stanzaic unit, which corresponds also to the grammatical unit. Which is neat. Too neat.
Because of course this is only the beginning of an understanding of how a poem works. It takes us only to the very edges of the piece, to the outskirts of its vast territory. In order properly to comprehend it we would need to know why Auden chose this rigorous, cramped, bastard form. And why did he begin the poem with an “I”, undoubtedly the most depressing and dreary little pronoun in the English language?
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Who is this “I”? And why are they sitting in a dive? And is it real or is it imagined, this place? And why the double adjectives?
Trying to understand how a poem works is one thing: trying to understand what’s wrong with it is another. “Rereading a poem of mine,” Auden wrote, looking back, “1st September, 1939, after it had been published I came to the line ‘We must love one another or die’ and said to myself: ‘That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.’ So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty – and must be scrapped.”
Auden was always inclined towards radical self-editing but “September 1, 1939” is unlike any of the other poems he attempted to rewrite and abandon: it is the most famous example in literary history of a writer attempting to revise his work, and of readers refusing to allow it. Auden may have attempted to hack up the poem and destroy it but it has been saved from dismemberment and death, time and again: “September 1, 1939”, among other things, is the world’s greatest zombie poem. It won’t die – and never will – because people want it to be true.
Most famously and significantly, in the aftermath of 9/11, many American newspapers reprinted Auden’s poem in its entirety: it was widely circulated and discussed online and in print. It seemed prophetic, wise and relevant, almost too good to be true. This is partly because it mentions September and New York, circulating fears, and the unmentionable odour of death, all in its first stanza. It was the right poem, in the right place, for a wrong time. At the end of it we come away with an image of some unnamed individual, in New York, speaking directly of their fears and concerns: a lonely, frightened figure, surveying a terrifying world outside. It was a work that spoke to the moment.
Oddly, with Auden this had happened before. In the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” – the one that begins “Stop all the clocks” – is read at the funeral of a gay character, played by Simon Callow. To coincide with the release of the film, Faber published a pamphlet of 10 of Auden’s poems, titled Tell Me the Truth About Love: there were reports of sales of more than 275,000 copies. According to the poet James Fenton, Auden’s new-found popularity came about because “it seems that a large number of people, since the Aids epidemic, have become familiar with the experience of funerals at which a devastated boyfriend has to pay tribute to his prematurely dead lover. So Auden’s poem found an audience that needed it, nearly 60 years after its composition.”
My explanation for the long life and afterlife of “September 1, 1939” is that it’s one of those poems that seems to provide simple answers to difficult questions, which is not necessarily a good thing. In studying it I’ve come to the conclusion that poetry can indeed uplift and sublimate and help us to make things good, but that it can also encourage us in false and sentimental ideas and emotions. Poetry can guide us, and it can lead us astray. And we have to acknowledge this, if we want to grant poetry its proper place in our lives. “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts,” wrote Auden, “is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient. I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive.” Auden died in 1973, most of his best work produced in the 1930s and 40s. It turns out that we need him now as much as ever.
• September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, by Ian Sansom is published by 4th Estate. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian