Themes and Meanings
“September 1, 1939” records Auden’s rejection of some of the ideologies of the 1930’s, most notably Marxist socialism. His direct statement in stanza 8, “There is no such thing as the State,” sums up what the poem has been building to from its beginning. The “clever hopes” of stanza 1 refer mainly to socialist economic schemes that most of the British intelligentsia espoused after World War I. Such schemes had not diminished the growth of a capitalist economy nor improved the lot of the working class but, worse yet, merely aggravated the social conditions under which totalitarianism flourished.
Auden, however, blames more than one decade. From the time of the Reformation (“Luther until now”), the humanity of man has been diminished. The fascist despair of the 1930’s was also the accumulation of such Western philosophical views as Thomas Hobbes’, for example, that human life was nasty and brutish.
In “September 1, 1939,” Auden’s early interest in Sigmund Freud begins to combine with an emergent affirmation of Christianity. Explaining how to account for modern monsters such as Hitler, Auden offers not simply a reductive Freudian approach but a Christian precept. Exploring Hitler’s childhood (“what occurred at Linz”) is a Freudian tactic to prove scientifically the simple Christian truism of the Golden Rule given at the end of stanza 2.
“September 1, 1939” also expresses themes developed in other works of the period by Auden. In Letter to Lord Byron (1937), Auden argues the Freudian/Marxist determinism that behavior is determined unconsciously by instinctive needs, such as hunger and love. In “September 1, 1939,” the poet affirms that belief in the problematic eighth stanza: “Hunger allows no choice.” The biological need for love is the “error bred in the bone,” a...
(The entire section is 426 words.)