More than 80 years ago, W.H. Auden set verse to his grief over one of the darkest days in modern Western history: “September 1, 1939,” the day Germany invaded Poland. A coordinated Soviet attack followed two weeks later, and Europe slid rapidly into World War II. As the lyric beings, Auden describes the angst of the day’s end:
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.
Reading the poem today, we can see the dark contours of our own day, and our own society, whose members must respond to the opaque churnings of history, against which we feel so powerless, and the foment of bitterness between and within nations. A few of the more memorable lines bear repeating.
From stanza 2:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
From stanza 5:
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
And, famously, from stanza 8:
We must love one another or die.
Taking the long view (from Thucydides, Dante, and others), Auden speaks of the power—and, yes, the limitations—of speech in the modern, urban world: “Where blind skyscrapers use / Their full height to proclaim / The strength of Collective Man.” In the midst of our “euphoric dream,” the poet observes no peace among nations where “conventions conspire” to distract citizens from the self-knowledge of “error bred in the bone.”
In such a bleak moment, Auden sought recourse to perennial questions and the ongoing conversation of humanity: What is justice? Who is my neighbor? If human nature remains susceptible to the passions and irrationality that cause ignorant armies to clash, perhaps Auden’s vision might help us gaze again on those “ironic points of light,” above and all around us—“an affirming flame.”
In nine short stanzas, Auden offers five minutes of reflection and an unforgettable reminder of the human madness that unleashes hell. A warning to us all, utopians of the right and the left: remember the crooked timber of humanity and the dignity of each and every human being.