'September 1, 1939' by W.H. Auden

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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 skyskrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language 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;

Editor 1 Interpretation


September 1, 1939 is a poem written by W.H. Auden in response to the outbreak of World War II. The poem is a complex work that explores the emotions and attitudes of people during this time of great uncertainty and fear. Auden's use of language, tone, and imagery create a powerful and thought-provoking work that continues to resonate with readers today.


The poem begins with the line "I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street", immediately setting the scene and tone for the rest of the work. The speaker is situated in a seedy bar, surrounded by the detritus of everyday life. This setting creates a sense of bleakness and despair, which is reinforced by the speaker's observations of the people around him. He notes that "Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day", indicating that people are trying to hold on to some sense of normalcy in the face of great upheaval.

As the poem progresses, the speaker begins to reflect on the larger issues at play. He notes that "The windiest militant trash/Important Persons shout/Is not so crude as our wish". This line suggests that even those who are advocating for war are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions. The speaker goes on to describe the "unmentionable odour of death", which hangs over the city like a pall. This image creates a sense of foreboding and dread, as if the speaker knows that something terrible is about to happen.

Throughout the poem, Auden uses a variety of literary devices to create a complex work. For example, he employs enjambment, where a line of poetry continues on to the next line without punctuation. This creates a sense of urgency and momentum, as if the poem is building towards a climax. He also uses alliteration and assonance to create musicality and rhythm, which adds to the overall impact of the work.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is Auden's use of imagery. He describes the city as "a lonely cab-horse steams and stamps". This image suggests that the city is trapped, unable to move forward or escape the impending disaster. He also writes that "All the clocks in the city/Began to whirr and chime". This image creates a sense of chaos and confusion, as if time itself is being disrupted by the events unfolding.

Another key element of the poem is the speaker's internal struggle. He notes that "We must love one another or die". This line suggests that the only way to survive in the face of such overwhelming danger is through love and connection. However, the speaker also acknowledges that this is easier said than done. He writes that "Defenseless under the night/Our world in stupor lies". This line suggests that people are paralyzed by fear and unable to act, even if they wanted to.


There are many ways to interpret September 1, 1939, as the poem is rich with meaning and symbolism. One possible interpretation is that the poem is a warning about the dangers of war and the importance of human connection. The speaker notes that "We must love one another or die", suggesting that war and violence are the ultimate expression of human isolation and disconnection.

Another possible interpretation is that the poem is a reflection on the human condition. The speaker notes that "All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie", suggesting that language and communication are the only weapons we have against the darkness of the world. This interpretation suggests that the poem is a call to action, urging readers to speak out against injustice and oppression.

Finally, the poem can be seen as a meditation on the nature of time and history. The speaker notes that "We must love one another and die", suggesting that death is an inevitable part of the human experience. However, the poem also suggests that we have the power to shape our own destinies, even in the face of overwhelming odds. The poem ends with the line "We must love one another and die", suggesting that even in death, there is a glimmer of hope and connection.


In conclusion, September 1, 1939 is a powerful and moving work that continues to resonate with readers today. Auden's use of language, tone, and imagery create a complex and thought-provoking work that can be interpreted in many different ways. Whether it is seen as a warning about the dangers of war or a meditation on the human condition, the poem stands as a testament to the power of language and the importance of human connection.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is a classic poem that captures the essence of the time period in which it was written. The poem was written in 1939, just as World War II was beginning to unfold. It is a powerful piece of literature that reflects on the state of the world at that time, and the emotions that were felt by many people.

The poem is divided into three parts, each of which explores different themes and ideas. The first part of the poem sets the scene, describing the city of New York and the people who inhabit it. Auden paints a picture of a city that is bustling with activity, but also one that is filled with fear and uncertainty. He describes the people as being “uncertain and afraid” and “distracted from distraction by distraction”. This line is particularly powerful, as it captures the sense of confusion and chaos that was prevalent at the time.

The second part of the poem is where Auden really delves into the themes of the poem. He begins by discussing the rise of fascism in Europe, and the fear that it is causing. He describes the “blind skyscrapers” and the “neon lights” that are symbols of the modern world, but also of the darkness that is creeping in. He talks about the “unmentionable odour of death” that is present, and the “human position” that is being threatened.

Auden then goes on to discuss the idea of love, and how it is being threatened by the events of the time. He talks about how love is “not a sentimental emotion”, but rather a force that can “stand up to the world’s desire”. He describes how love can be a “shield against the darkness”, and how it can help to bring people together in a time of crisis.

The final part of the poem is perhaps the most powerful. Auden begins by discussing the idea of “private faces in public places”, and how people are often hiding their true emotions from the world. He talks about how people are “living in a world of hate”, and how they are “lost in a haunted wood”. He then goes on to discuss the idea of hope, and how it can be found even in the darkest of times. He talks about how hope is a “gift from the gods”, and how it can help to guide us through difficult times.

Overall, “September 1, 1939” is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that captures the essence of the time period in which it was written. Auden’s use of language is masterful, and his ability to capture the emotions of the time is truly remarkable. The poem is a reminder of the power of literature to capture the essence of a moment in time, and to help us to understand the world around us.

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