Tuesday, September 01, 2009

September 1

The 70th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland, which became the Second World War on September 3, 1939, when the British and French ultimata expired.

Brad DeLong memorializes the anniversary with Auden's "September 1, 1939," which I suppose is inevitable but which I have never particularly admired, in contrast with this reader. I do not think that this --
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.
-- either wears well 70 years later, or carries any moral sense whatsoever. The Germans invaded Poland because of the evil done to them? Huh?

And I do not quite understand what this verse is even saying:
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers 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.
What follows the colon -- is it the vain competitive excuse, or is it Auden's commentary on the vain competitive excuses? It seems clear that we ourselves bear guilt for "Imperialism's face" -- okay, got it, but what did that have to do with September 1, 1939 -- and "the international wrong," which is like some right-winger's parody of Liberal Guilt.

These lines do not show Auden's having progressed much beyond his notorious line about "the necessary murder" for which Orwell scalded him.

That said, let's give the poem credit for some of its better lines:
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.
... Carried my Auden-trashin' to the DeLong thread, where the interested may see what response it engendereth.

... Silbey has a good post up on September 1.


  1. The short choppy lines are extraordinarily ugly.

  2. Yeats could pull them off in "Easter 1916," but Auden was not Yeats.

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  4. "Easter 1916," last stanza:

    Too long a sacrifice
    Can make a stone of the heart.
    O when may it suffice?
    That is Heaven's part, our part
    To murmur name upon name,
    As a mother names her child
    When sleep at last has come
    On limbs that had run wild.
    What is it but nightfall?
    No, no, not night but death;
    Was it needless death after all?
    For England may keep faith
    For all that is done and said.
    We know their dream; enough
    To know they dreamed and are dead;
    And what if excess of love
    Bewildered them till they died?
    I write it out in a verse--
    MacDonagh and MacBride
    And Connolly and Pearse
    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn,
    Are changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.