No Comment, Quotation — June 20, 2010, 3:49 am

Auden—September 1, 1939

kirchner_-_selbstbildnis_als_soldat

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.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points 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.

Read the entire poem here

Wystan Hugh Auden, September 1, 1939 (excerpt) first published in The New Republic, Oct. 18, 1939.


Listen to a reading of the poem by Dylan Thomas:

)


This poem achieved great resonance after the events of September 11, 2001—it was widely reproduced, recited on NPR, and interpreted with a link to the tragic events of that day. Indeed, it starts in Manhattan, “in one of the dives on Fifty-second Street,” which Auden later clarified: the Dizzy Club, 62 West 52nd Street (the premises are now occupied by a Beefsteak Charlie’s, I checked). But it captures Auden’s reaction to another tragedy, namely the outbreak of World War II. The poem expresses anger and sadness towards those events, and it questions the historical and mass psychological process that led to the war. In fact, it focuses on the political psychosis of the German people, echoing a few lines of Nietzsche (“Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad”). It then turns to the effect that this war will have on the world and its people, again with psychological overtones. While most of the poem seems thus a chronological bookmark, the last two stanzas—reproduced here–emerge like light from a break in the clouds. They seem to assert defiance in the face of the descending mentality of war. The language is surprisingly naïve but also very moving, and one line, “We must love one another or die” has become a badge for Auden.

It’s curious that Auden felt embarrassed by this poem (he made Penguin include a note saying that it was “trash he was ashamed to have written”) and sought to suppress its inclusion in his later collected works. Perhaps he was concerned about the simplicity and frankness of thought, the somewhat amateurish psychologizing. But the noble note on which the poem ends, its defiant affirmation of love and sympathy in a time of boiling hatred, merits reading, particularly when the troubles and burdens of the world threaten to crush us.


Listen to Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland (1950) in a performance by the European Camerata. Britten has constructed an entirely instrumental dialogue with one of the most celebrated songs of the Elizabethan era, “Flow My Tears” (1596). He occludes and obstructs the instrumental text in a sort of mock dialogue. The quotation of music is set to this text: “Flow, my tears, fall from your springs! / Exiled for ever, let me mourn; / Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings, / There let me live forlorn.” A performance of the Dowland song by Andreas Scholl follows.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Sarah Topol follows the trade routes used by arms smugglers, Eric Foner explores the hidden history of the Underground Railroad, Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts a humiliating episode from grade school, and more
Photograph by Angela Strassheim
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Gateway to Freedom·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Vigilance Committee survived until the eve of the Civil War, and over the course of its several incarnations it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness.“
Photograph by Amani Willett
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A former New York City police officer who had been arrested in 2012 for exchanging online messages about cooking women alive and eating them, and for illegally accessing data about potential victims in law-enforcement databases, was sentenced to time served.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today