The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“September 1, 1939” consists of nine stanzas of eleven lines each. The title refers to the beginning of World War II, the day that Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. W. H. Auden uses the occasion to write a farewell to the 1930’s and to meditate on the social and psychological causes of war.

The poem is written in the first person, with the poet addressing the reader directly. Auden claims to be writing the poem in a bar in midtown Manhattan. While the setting may seem, at first, inappropriate for a serious subject, it is typical of Auden, as well as of many other modern poets, to take a detached point of view—even when their subjects are profoundly important to them. The mood or tone of the entire poem is established in the first stanza. The poet reports directly his feelings of uncertainty and fear for the future, as well as his distrust of the socialist schemes of the 1930’s that failed to prevent the recurrence of war.

In the following three stanzas (2 through 4), Auden characteristically gives an intellectual analysis of the causes of the war. Two years earlier, in “Spain 1937,” he had used the occasion of the Spanish civil struggle to treat war as a psychological rather than a political phenomenon. Similarly, in “September 1, 1939,” he observes that European cultural history is a madness that erupts repeatedly in war. The second stanza affirms the historical and psychological explanations: the emphasis, beginning with Protestantism, on man as an economic being, and the belief that psychopaths like Hitler are created by abuses they suffer in childhood.

Auden next shows...

(The entire section is 664 words.)