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DISCUSSION OF SEPTEMBER 1, 1939 BY W H AUDEN

Tickey de Jager
In 1984 Joseph Brodsky gave a lecture on this poem at Columbia University. It is
printed on 53 pages in his book, Less Than One. This discussion is little more (or may
be less) than a shorter version of that. It is written as a guide to the poem for people
who do not have access to Brodsky's work, or would find 53 pages too intimidating.
Because this is not for publication, I will quote Brodsky whenever I feel it will help the
reader. I hope that seeing the quality of his writing will encourage some of my readers
to read this and other works of Brodsky.
Here is the poem. The discussion starts on page 3.
I sit in one of the dives 1
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
2
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
3
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.
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Into this neutral air


4
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.
Faces along the bar
5
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 6
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 7


Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
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All I have is a voice


8
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 stupour 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.

Let someone first introduce Auden.


Edward Mendelson in the preface to his Selected Poems of Auden:
"Auden was the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century. He
welcomed into his poetry all the disordered conditions of his time, all its variety of language and
event. In this, as in almost everything else, he differed from his modernist predecessors such as
Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot or Pound, who turned away from a flawed present to some lost illusory
Eden where life was unified, hierarchy secure, and the grand style a natural extension of the
vernacular. All of this Auden rejected. His continuing subject was the task of the present
moment: erotic and political tasks in his early poems, ethical and religious ones later. When
Auden looked back into history, it was to seek the causes of his present condition, that he may
act better and more effectively in the future. The past his poems envisioned was never a
southern classical domain of unreflective elegance, as it was for the modernists, but a past that
had always been ruined, a northern industrial landscape marred by the same violence that marred
his own."
...
"Auden was never altogether happy in his role as poetic prophet to the English left, and he was
often most divided when he appeared most committed. As early as 1936 he sensed that if he
were ever to escape the temptations to fame and to the power to shape opinion that led him to
accept this role, he would have to leave England." . . .
"When he arrived in America to stay, early in 1939, he set to work on what was virtually a new
career, recapitulating his earlier one in a drastically different manner. He began to explore once
again the same thematic and formal territory he had covered in his English years, but with a
maturer vision, and no longer distracted by the claims of a public."...
"The shift from private to public concerns that occurred in Auden's work in the early thirties
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occurred again in the mid-forties, although now he was without ambition for social influence and
lived in a country where poets traditionally had none. His departure from England proved not to
have been a rejection of all public roles, as he thought at the time, but a rejection of the wrong
ones. He now became an interpreter of his society, not its scourge and prophet."
Auden sounded warnings on the threat of war for years. His In Memory of W B Yeats
published on 8th March 1939 contains the lines:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait
Each sequestered in his hate.
Brodsky:
"His departure caused considerable uproar at home. He was charged with desertion, with
abandoning his country in a time of peril . . . And the bulk of his accusers were precisely those
who saw no peril coming: the left, the right, the pacifists."
Now let us start with the poem.
Numbers on the left show where discussion of that stanza starts.
1
I sit in one of the dives 1
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.
Auden left England in 1938 to live in America and wrote the poem just after the start of
the war in 1939. He is writing for two audiences: the people in England and the people
in America. He starts off by writing like a reporter, saying where he is reporting from:
I sit in one of the dives 1
On Fifty-second Street
His use of dives is a reflection of his desire to give his language an American flavour.
If you write in English for all people who speak the language, you must master all its
idioms. Fifty-second Street continues his American stance, but lightens it and makes it
more familiar to his audience in England because at the time Fifty-second Street was
the jazz strip of the world.

Brodsky:
"At any rate 'Fifty-second Street' rings enough of a bell on both sides of the Atlantic to make
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people listen. In the beginning of every poem, a poet has to dispel that air of art and artifice that
clouds the public's attitude to poetry. He has to be convincing, plain - the way, presumably, the
public itself is. He has to speak with a public voice, and all the more so if it is a public subject he
deals with.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
answers those requirements. What we get here is the level, confident voice of one of us, of a
reporter who speaks to us in our own tones. And just as we are prepared for him to continue in
this reassuring fashion, just as we've recognised this public voice and have been lulled into
regularity by his trimeters, the poet plummets us into the very private diction of 'Uncertain and
afraid.' Now this is not the way reporters talk; this is the voice of a scared child rather than of a
seasoned, trench-coated newsman. 'Uncertain and afraid' denotes what? - doubt. And this is
precisely where this poem - indeed poetry in general, art in general, starts for real: in, or with,
doubt. All of a sudden the certitude of that Fifty-second Street dive is gone and you get the
feeling that perhaps it was displayed there in the first place because he was uncertain and afraid
in the very beginning; that's why he clung to its concreteness."
Finding the reasons for this uncertainty and fear is a large part of the poem.
The first reason is the clever hopes of people in England who had pinned their hopes
on pacifism and appeasement. The previous decade was certainly low and dishonest.
As the fear about Hitler grew, so did the argument, especially on the Continent, that
things would somehow come right. Waves of anger and fear are the radio waves. the
bright and darkened lands of the earth refers both to the lands in daylight or night, and
to those who are enlightened (in the eyes of the West) and those who are not.
Newspapers have a circulation; so it's they who circulate.
2
The first stanza ended on a highly emotional note with The unmentionable odour of
death. Auden wants to come down from that high emotional level, so he becomes
objective and dispassionate with Accurate scholarship can.
Accurate scholarship can
2
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.
Linz is the place where Hitler grew up without a father. Imago is a term from
psychoanalysis. It is the idealised or fantasized figure, often a father, especially in the
absence of a real father, from a person's early childhood, whose standards then
become a model for his behaviour in adult life.
People do not only do evil in return when evil has been done to them. They do evil in
return when they feel evil has been done to them. The Germans certainly felt evil had
been done to them in the way they were treated after the first World War.
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Paul Johnson gives an account of this treatment on page 26 of A History of the


Modern world from 1917 to 1980. On page 104 of the same book he says:
"Germany had fought the war principally from fear of the growing industrial and military
strength of Russia, a huge, overbearing, tyrannical neighbour, right on Germany's doorstep and
threatening to overwhelm her. By the middle of 1918 Germany, despite desperate struggles on
the Western Front, had exorcised what to her was the principal spectre."
The German soldiers, including 29-year-old Hitler, were shocked when they heard of
the surrender. So that was another reason for them to feel that evil had been done to
them.
Auden visited Germany several times after leaving Oxford and saw at first hand the
people whose social fabric and economy were completely undone. Christopher
Isherwood's Berlin Stories give a good picture of Germany at that time. German
Expressionism flourished with its stress on distortion, fragmentation and the
communication of violent and overstressed emotion. The ground, especially in the
youth, was being fertilised to produce evil.
3
Exiled Thucydides knew
3
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.
Exiled Thucydides knew. Thucydides the historian was also the general Thucydides
who arrived too late to save the important town of Amphipolis because the Spartan
general Brasidas had offered the city moderate terms to surrender. For this he was
exiled from the city he passionately loved. (You can find this on page 17 of The
Pageant of Greece by R W Livingstone.) The speech that Auden mentions was the
speech by Pericles for the soldiers who fell in the war. It is probably the greatest speech
about democracy ever made. It is at the start of Book Two, Chapter 4 of The
Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. (p 116 in the Penguin Classics edition.) In his
biography of Auden, Humphrey Carpenter says that Auden was rereading Thucydides
at the time he wrote this poem. Thucydides wrote his history after the war, which
Athens lost, knowing that it had spelt the end of Classical Greece. Auden realised that
great change for our own times loomed on the horizon. In a sense he wants to be a
Thucydides for our time, but he does not have the advantage of hindsight that
Thucydides had. As Brodsky says:
"We must remember that Auden landed in New York just eight months earlier, on December 26
1938, the very date the Spanish Republic fell. The sense of helplessness which presumably
overcame this poet (who had by that time issued more and better warnings against Fascism than
anyone else in the field) on this September night simply seeks solace in the parallel with the
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Greek historian who dealt with the phenomenon at hand no less extensively, two millennia ago.
In other words, if Thucydides failed to convince the Greeks, what chance is there for a modern
poet, with his weaker voice and bigger crowd?"
Auden probably expects us to contrast Thucydides-Athens-Democracy-Enlightenment
as against Sparta-Dicatorship.
Auden is supposed to have gone through three stages: Freudian, Marxist, religious.
Brodsky thinks that the lines
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
has them all. Habit-forming pain is a term from psychoanalysis in which Auden was
well versed, mismanagement refers to the political economy, and grief in which the
lines culminate, is pure King James Bible. Seldom is the relationship between cause
and effect so poignantly expressed in two successive words as in Mismanagement and
grief.
4
With Habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief Auden has again ended a stanza
in an emotionally loaded way, and this neutral air helps to lower the tone. It also helps
to let the poet seem objective, neutral. But above all, he is writing in America and at this
stage America is still neutral. And anyway, there is no better adjective for air than
neutral.
Into this neutral air
4
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.
In this stanza, Auden moves from the past into the present.
Why are skyscrapers blind? The word window comes from the German wind auge.
(Afrikaans: wind oog). It is an opening through which the wind can come in and an eye
through which we can see out. But the skyscrapers do not see through their many
windows, so they are blind.
In any country, small towns have no tall buildings. Skyscrapers are always a sign of
dense population, they always proclaim the existence of collective man. I wonder
whether they proclaim his strength.
The rest of stanza 4 deals with the attitudes, the indifference, the inertia, that brought
the whole tragedy about. Brodsky claims that the poem is mainly about shame, and
among the faces in the mirror, Auden sees his own.

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5
In the next stanza we are in the ordinary, everyday world. Just read it and enjoy it.
I won't destroy it by analysis.
Faces along the bar
5
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.
6
It is very comforting to blame others, like important Persons who shout militant trash,
for what is wrong. "But" says Brodsky, "just as we are ready fully to enjoy its deriding air
comes
Is not so crude as our wish . . .
which not only robs us of a scapegoat and states our own responsibility for the rotten state of
affairs but tells us that we are worse than those we blame to the extent that wish assonates with
trash, failing to comfort us even with the equation of an exact rhyme.
6
The windiest militant trash 6
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.
In this stanza Auden comes to what he thought was the root cause of what was wrong
in this era: selfishness.

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
does not refer only, or even mainly, to jealousy or selfishness in love between men and
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women, but to selfishness in general, to the ancient Greek vice of pleonexia, always
wanting more. Individuals as well as nations.
Brodsky says that Auden quotes verbatim from Nijinsky's diary at the end of the stanza,
and strongly recommends that we read the diary. But where can one find it?
7 Brodsky:
" On the whole, the role of stanza 7 is to finish the job of the previous one, i.e. to trace the
malaise to its origins, and indeed Auden reaches the marrow.
Naturally enough, after this, one needs a break, and the break comes in the next stanza, which
employs less pointed thinking and a more general, more public level of diction."
From the conservative dark 7
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

In the first two lines we go from the conservative dark, not to light, but to the ethical
life.
Brodsky:
On the whole the stanza depicts a dispirited mechanical existence where governors are not in
any way superior to the governed and neither are able to escape from the enveloping gloom they
have spun for themselves.
Throughout his discussion Brodsky makes much of Auden's use of assonant rhyme,
such as love-have-Diaghilev in the sixth stanza and dark-work-wake in this one.

8 At this stage Auden has doubts about the value, or at least possible impact, of what
he is writing and says:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
Which is odd, since he had already said in his poem in memory of Yeats that poetry
makes nothing happen. That is not its function. Its function is to make us vividly aware
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of something. Stephen Spender said that Auden was very good at diagnosis, but would
never presume to offer a cure. Quite right, too. Such presumption is not in the nature of
poetry or that of Auden. If he can undo the folded lie in the brain of the sensual man-inthe-street and the lie of authority, he need not be so despondent about his work. He has
done his job as a poet: to interpret his society, not to reform it or try to cure its ills.
Except that an increase in insight, awareness, human sympathy are necessary, though
not sufficient for such reform or cure.
All I have is a voice
8
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.
In this stanza Auden moves from impersonal objectivity to a personal, subjective note,
using I for only the second time in the poem.
Brodsky:
"And this I is no longer wrapped in a newsman's trench coat: what you hear is incurable
sorrow, for all its stoical timbre."
This stanza echoes the theme of universal love versus to be loved alone in stanza 6.
The sensual man-in-the-street, Authority , and the citizen or the police are just
instances of each woman and each man.

9 Auden's In Memory of W B Yeats has the lines


Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress
The next stanza of September 1 starts on the same high lyrical note with
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupour lies;
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And the lyricism comes from the same rapture of distress.


In I Believe E M Forster writes
:
"It's a humiliating outlook - though the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights,
reassuring one another, signalling, Well, at all events I'm still here. I don't like it very much, but
how are you? Unquenchable lights of my aristocracy! Signals of the invincible army!"
There will be something in the next stanza that will remind you of that.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupour 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.

Wordsworth has a warning against what I have been doing in this discussion:
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.
The purpose of Brodsky's discussion was to try to find out what the poem means.
However, when we come to the last stanza he says:
"But you don't dissect a bird to find the origins of its song."
The meaning of a poem is its beauty.
To understand a poem is to be moved by its beauty.
So let that stanza be, just be, just be. . . .

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