Tuesday Poem: W.H. Auden - 1st September 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god;
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief;
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each landscape pours its vain
Competitive excuse;
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day;
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish;
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game;
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf
Who can speak for the dumb?

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere
Ironic point of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages;
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden

I've been re-reading Auden and find him rather wordy and ponderous at times, but there were poems that struck to the bone and this is one of them.  I felt that it could have been written for now - this 'low, dishonest decade', with a psychopathic god conjured out of the bible by dictators, in a 'euphoric dream' spouting their 'competitive excuses'.   We are indeed  children 'lost in a haunted wood'.

Apparently in some of the lines he was referring back to W.B. Yeats 'Easter 1916'* - another powerful commentary on the slide into political upheaval - and I don't find it surprising that New Yorkers turned to this poem when the Twin Towers came down in 2001 and the 'strength of Collective Man' was challenged.  The moment felt - and was - apocalyptic.  The world as we knew it was never the same again afterwards - not just politically, but in that our own personal freedoms were curtailed - even the laws that protected us from imprisonment without trial and the unjust uses of  state power were limited or removed under the excuse of terrorism.

Auden had one of the most lived-in faces I have ever seen - a tribute to a life lived to the full, though it was often tragic.  He was born and educated in England but moved to America in 1939.  He spent time in Berlin, had a relationship (and wrote 3 plays) with Christopher Isherwood.  In 1935 he married Erika Mann purely to give her British nationality to escape the Nazis.  The marriage was never consummated. His relationships with men were often painful - his intense love, and desire for a long-term relationship, often unrequited.
A young and handsome Auden with his lover Christopher Isherwood in 1939
Politically Auden was left-wing  - he went to Spain intending to drive an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War, only to become a journalist instead.  The experiences he had in Berlin and Spain influenced his writing for the rest of his life.  He was deeply intellectual - Joseph Brodsky said that he had the 'greatest mind' of his generation. As a writer he was very versatile, writing prose and poetry and collaborating with Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky on opera libretto.  He died in 1973 after a poetry reading in Vienna.

I'm keeping an open mind as I re-read.  There are conflicting opinions on Auden's work and he is no longer revered as one of the 'men of letters' who were so influential during the thirties and forties.  Ironically, he's now best known for his poem 'Funeral Blues' read in the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.   It started out as a satirical poem in a play about a corrupt politician, was set to music for a cabaret by Benjamin Britten, but what was written as mockery and melodrama is now taken as a straight expression of grief.  How things change!

* In Auden's collection, '1st September 1939' follows directly after his poem 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats'.

If you don't want to buy the bulky 'Collected Poems', this might be a good choice.  You can pick up second hand copies quite cheaply.

W.H. Auden, ed. John Fuller


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