September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

“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.

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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.

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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.

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Latest answer posted October 2, 2015, 9:57 am (UTC)

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“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 desire that can never be fulfilled.

In a later work, “The Prolific and the Devourer,” Auden wrote that while a “change of heart,” a turning away from Fascism, would not save the world, historical development would nevertheless produce a change of heart. Both failure and success increase human understanding. It is this moderate optimism—which has become known as liberal humanism—that emerges at the end of “September 1, 1939.” From the humanist E. M. Forster’s essay, “What I Believe,” Auden borrows the image of “points of light,” noting that their appearance is “Ironic.” These points are the “Just,” a category very close to the Christian righteous, who emerge out of nowhere (some vast darkness) to “exchangemessages” of hope and affirmation. The ending becomes a description, then, of exactly what Auden has done in “September 1, 1939”: One of the Just, he has shared his “message” with the reader.

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