“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 how impervious each historical age is to others and how each fails to learn from its predecessors. In the third stanza, the poet refers to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote the first history of a war, the Peloponnesian. Thucydides believed that because human nature did not change, such conflicts would be repeated in every age. Auden not only affirms Thucydides’ belief, but he also gives the recurrence of war a psychological motive: Humans actually want to experience pain, not avoid it. In the fourth stanza, Auden refers to statesmen who, in all ages, foolishly rationalize war until they are ultimately forced to admit what Thucydides knew: All war reduces to motives of imperialism.
The next three stanzas (5 through 7) become more personal in tone as the poet describes the inhabitants of the bar. Like him, they are typical urbanites who huddle, build defenses against reality, and share a “normal” desire that is impossible to gratify: to be loved exclusively by another human being. Average citizens commit themselves to this impossible goal as determinedly as governments pursue the game of war.
In the eighth stanza, the poet portrays himself not as a common bar patron but as a higher voice of authority. In a poem (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) commemorating the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, published just six months previously, Auden had asked whether poets could ever, through their verse, alter a course of events. In that poem and in this one, he reaches the same conclusion: All the poet can do is state truths. The truth Auden offers in the eighth stanza was to cause him great difficulty and lead him to remove first this stanza and then the entire poem from his collected works. The last line of the stanza—“We must love one another or die”—Auden changed once to “and die” (for Oscar Williams’s reprinting in The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse from Colonial Days to the Present , 1955). Yet...
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then Auden decided that both versions were dishonest, since all die anyway.
The last stanza offers a humane and hopeful tone that is absent from the rest of the poem. The poet becomes not a seer but merely one of many citizens who desire a just society. He offers not a sweeping truth but a modest prayer: to reject the prevalent mood of despair and thereby affirm that life is purposeful.
Auden is regarded, because of his style, as a poet of logic rather than emotion. He was one of the first modern poets to reject the nineteenth century Romantic concept that reading poetry should be a sensuous experience and a way to reach emotions that could not be explained by reason. Auden argued that images in poetry could show a “one to one correspondence grasped by the reader’s reason”; poets did not have to use symbols that suggested multiple meanings or relationships (The Enchafèd Flood, 1950).
One feature of Auden’s poems, especially in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, is his frequent use of adjectives to modify neutral or abstract nouns. Another device is to attach an active or colorful verb to a flat or prosaic subject noun. For example, the 1930’s are “a low dishonest decade,” pain is “habit-forming,” and skyscrapers, like tall people, “use Their full height” to impress.
Another way that Auden makes his lines poetic is to transfer adjectives from the words they logically modify to other words in the sentence. It is the readers’ job to unscramble the sentence and make it prosaic. For example, New York’s rush-hour morning commuters, who give the city its dense workaday population, are described as “dense.” Tall buildings that blindly, or unwittingly, “proclaim” are “blind.”
In “September 1, 1939,” Auden was influenced by Yeats’s poem about the Irish rebellion, “Easter 1916.” The diction and rhythm of Yeats’s poem are echoed, for example, in lines 6 through 11 of Auden’s first stanza. The short lines of Auden’s poem, usually of six or seven syllables, echo Yeats’s of seven or eight. Though Auden came to regret Yeats’s influence on his poems, he never slavishly followed him. Auden’s use of rhyme, for example, is subtler and much less regular. Auden is fond of slant (or half) rhymes: life/leaf, grave/grief, fear/expire. Seldom does a pattern of end rhyme last throughout a stanza. Auden frequently uses half-rhymes within lines, as in stanza 5, where the f-r-t-m sound pattern of the phrase “fort assume” is answered in the next line by “furniture of home.” The incremental repetition of words or phrases, used infrequently, helps Auden to make transitions. At the end of the fourth stanza, a metaphor—the “face” of Imperialism—is transferred to human “Faces along the bar.”