Friday, September 04, 2009

POETRY FRIDAY: A Poem by W. H. Auden

I came upon a post by John Nichols, Auden’s Love Poem for Humanity, while I was doing some reading at the website of The Nation. It got me to thinking.

I taught a children’s literature course at Boston University for several years. One of the books on my list of required reading was Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a historical novel about World War II that is set in Denmark. One semester, I remember asking the students in my class if they could tell me what event precipitated the beginning of WW II. No one could. I thought that was sad. It made me think about how little our students learn about the history of the 20th century in school.

For you today, I have September 1, 1939—a poem written by W. H. Auden after he learned about the German invasion of Poland seventy years ago. I highly recommend the reading of Auden’s poem and the comment by Nichols.

From September 1, 1939
By W. H. Auden

The first stanza:

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.

The final two stanzas:

All I have is a voice

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.

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor 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.

You can read the rest of the poem here.


At Wild Rose Reader, I have a review of Stampede!: Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School.

I have two posts over at Political Verses this week—Political Pop Singers: Four Couplets and MARIA: A Song Parody about Maria Bartiromo.

Kelly Herold has the Poetry Friday Roundup at Crossover this week.


Julie said...

Elaine - I sent that poem out to friends eight years ago, after 9/11 left us all searching for the appropriate thing to say. How the "unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night" - that will always belong to that horrible day now for me. And every time I get to the phrase "composed of Eros and of dust," it takes my breath away. What a wonderful poem. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

We must love one another or die.

Indeed. Thanks for sharing this, Elaine. Paired with the Amy Lowell poem posted at Random Noodling, it makes for a far more thoughtful morning than I might otherwise have had.

Marinela said...

Beautiful poem, I enjoyed reading it :)

laurasalas said...

This poem rings as true today as ever. I love, besides the opening and closing stanzas:

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.

Haunting, indeed.