Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

I have been home, today, working at my usual table, trying to process the never-ending flood of “Day 1” news that has been coming off of my feed – heartbreaking news of how some persons have been newly emboldened to commit violent acts – physical and symbolic – which express fear and hatred toward their fellow citizens and humans. Perhaps equally disappointing has been listening to good-hearted citizens that I know  – people who would never think of committing those acts of violence themselves – deny the gravity of what has (long) been happening. My partner teaches at a high school outside of Chicago, and arrived home yesterday with stories of how certain students were already being harassed by their classmates. Alongside news of other hate-fueled messages and acts across the country, it pains me to think of the personal and political consequences of denial and, like many others, of what lies ahead.

My response today is to revisit W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939–written at the outset of WWII. It was recited to me during a good-bye, by a dear friend, at a time when I was returning home after a long stay abroad and was facing an uncertain transition. I have always remembered the last two sections of the poem:

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.


Tom O’Bedlam recites the entire poem, here.

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