(1939) "September 1, 1939," written as Germany invaded Poland, signaled the end of the 1930s era of political activism, at least for W H. auden, one the most important political poets of the 1930s. The poem grew to have a significant place in the discussion of what makes a final, canonical version of a poem, as Auden excised one stanza from his Collected Poems (1945) and then later repudiated the entire poem. As World War II began, Auden saw, as he wrote in the poem, the "clever hopes" of a "low dishonest decade" dashed, dying as the threat of an evil nurtured by that decade—and, by extension, Auden and his fellow leftists. The poem was also his farewell to England and to himself as an English poet. Ensconced in a
"dive ... on 52nd Street" in New York City, Auden saw Europe from a distance and concluded that while "accurate scholarship" can purport to explain war, the real explanation is that "those to whom evil is done / do evil in return."
The poem as it was published in the New Republic in October 1939 and in his 1940 collection Another Time rejected old political answers and looked toward humanism in its most famous line, "We must love one another or die." Auden was later to reject the line, then eliminate the stanza in which it appears from his Collected Poems. He ultimately categorized the entire poem as dishonest— "I shouldn't have written it," he told Daniel Halpern, "it's a forgery" (137). He had earlier reached the conclusion, justifying the excision of the stanza, that "we must die anyway" (Foreword viii). Joseph Beach questions Auden's judgment here, pointing out that nothing in the stanza is inconsistent with the poet's later philosophy: "The love for another that we must have or die is directly opposed, in the manner of all his Christian writing, to the self-regarding Freudian Eros. . . . [T]here is no better statement of Auden's [subsequent] political and psychological position" (50). The major anthologists of the day, Oscar Williams and Louis Untermeyer, retained the stanza. Today almost every reprinting of the poem includes the stanza.
"September 1, 1939" gained new life after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as it became widely e-mailed, not just by devotees of poetry. Eric McHenry hails its "prescien[ce]. . . . Zealotry and violence are cyclical—'The habit-forming pain, / Mismanagement and grief: / We must suffer them all again.'"
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