BOOK REVIEW: W.H. Auden’s Poem ‘September 1, 1939’ Still Resonates In Times Of Crisis
BY MAUREEN CORRIGAN
It’s one of those poems people reach for in times when it feels like the sky is falling. It’s also generally regarded as one of the great poems of the 20th century.
“September 1, 1939,” as its title signals, was written by W.H. Auden in the days immediately following Germany’s invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Auden had left his native England and moved to New York City some nine months earlier, and the famous opening lines of the poem are rooted in the dingy geography of his new home:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, all or part of Auden’s poem about the unthinkable happening was printed in newspapers and read on the radio. Decades earlier, Lyndon B. Johnson drew on another line from the poem in his famous 1964 “Daisy” campaign commercial, where the image of a young girl plucking daisy petals is obliterated by the image of a nuclear explosion. Johnson’s commercial lightly tweaked Auden’s most cherished line, “We must love one another or die.”
Writer and critic Ian Sansom has been reaching for “September 1, 1939” for at least 25 years: That’s how long he says he has been trying to write a book about the poem. That book, also called September 1, 1939, has just been published, and I feel confident in saying that readers will either get a huge kick out of Sansom’s kooky, rambling, self-conscious and often inspired writing style, as I did — or they will loathe it.
Though he is a regular contributor to The Guardian and The London Review of Books, Sansom is not your standard-issue literary critic. Here, for instance, is a short conversation with a friend that Sansom quotes in his opening; he is trying to describe what kind of book he has written — or hasn’t written:
“(‘Is it one of those How-So-and-So Changed My Life type of books?’ asks a friend. ‘No,’ I say. ‘That’s a shame,’ they say. ‘People really like those sorts of books.’ ‘It’s more about my relationship with language, and literature, and ideas,’ I say. ‘Hmm,’ says my friend. ‘Well, good luck with that.’)”
Good luck, indeed. Actually, Sansom is underselling his book in that self-deprecating manner the Brits wear so well. September 1, 1939, the book, is a deeply informed and unapologetically digressive dive into Auden’s life, as well as into the life of this singular poem. Along the way, we readers hear a good deal of nattering about Sansom’s own life: how, for instance, his sister in Australia thinks he should buy a barbecue grill, or how he, unlike Auden, lasted only two weeks on a misbegotten pilgrimage to New York City. Sansom says of Auden, the poet, that he’s “a terrible fidget. It’s what makes [his] poems entertaining, and infuriating.” Much the same can be said of Sansom, the fidgety critic.
In his own erratic and largely entertaining style, Sansom ruminates on what he calls the “showing-off” structure and extraordinary language of Auden’s poem, especially the meanings packed into phrases like “blind skyscrapers” and “the folded lie.”
Sansom is also refreshingly blunt about parts of the poem he thinks are weak, like the end, which he dismisses as “twinkl[y].” Auden himself eventually disowned the poem; he even tried to change the “We must love one another or die” line, which he came to regard as dishonest. But it was too late. Sansom says that “September 1, 1939” “is undoubtedly the most famous example in literary history of a writer attempting to revise his work, and of readers refusing to allow it.”
And a good thing, too. There’s something uncanny about Auden’s poem that continues to make it necessary reading in times of crisis. Or, as Sansom neatly puts it, talking specifically about the poem’s service during the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001: “It was the right poem, in the right place, for a wrong time.”
Maybe, in our own present “Age of Anxiety” (the title of another Auden poem), “September” is still “the right poem.” Here’s the rest of that first stanza:
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.