W. H. Auden spent part of the year 1929 in Berlin, hoping to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of the more socially conservative London. Thus began his most political period, when he got caught up in antifascist movements and, eventually, went to Spain during their civil war. In the late 1920’s, Berlin was becoming a battleground between conflicting political factions. Auden and his English contemporaries often blamed older generations for the destruction of World War I, concluded only ten years earlier. They also saw, or thought they saw, the early indications of the next war. Political demonstrations often turned violent. Clashes between the police and demonstrators were common, as were brawls between communists and fascists. This political situation, which Adolf Hitler used to his advantage when he came to power in 1933, eventually led to World War II, the outbreak of which Auden marked with the poem “September 1, 1939.”
The poem known as “1929” was included in Auden’s first book of poetry, Poems (1930). The poem is often printed without a title, but Auden also published it in a slightly revised version in his Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 (1966), giving the year of its composition as its title. It is a composite of four segments—dated April 1929, May 1929, August 1929, and October 1929—taken from four separate poems. It has a fractured autobiographical narrative to match its fractured syntax. Some of the fragments were written while the poet was living in Germany (the public garden in which the poet walks is the Tiergarten in Berlin), and the whole thing was...
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