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September 1, 1939 -- W H Auden

Guest poem sent in by John Burke
(Poem #889) 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,
 Imperialism¹s 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
The poem (which has long been my favorite in English) speaks for itself. I
might just note that in fact, as Auden himself pointed out some years later,
we must love one another *and* die; it's a little light-minded to suppose
that somehow love conquers mortality. It doesn't, though it can make the
knowledge of mortality bearable.

-- jvb

[Martin adds: "We must love one another and die" has gone straight onto my
list of favourite quotations.]

39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Rajagopalan Ravi (Ravi) said...

This is a beautiful poem. You may want to read Joseph Brodsky's commentary
on this published in the mid-80s in a collection of essays.


Ravi Rajagopalan
Director, Business Dev and Solutions Marketing
Packet Technologies, EMEA
Lucent Technologies


Anonymous said...

"it's a little light-minded to suppose
that somehow love conquers mortality"

If in parting we leave behind us, foot prints in the sands of time as Longfellow said, are we not immortal do we not enable our posterity to participate in not only history but future 'love' as opposed to the temporary and deadenening absence of love/vacuum/black hole into which love brazenly slips in?

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