Remembering the outbreak of World War II with Auden, 81 years later.
Given the date, I revisited WH Auden's "September 1, 1939," which the poet wrote to mark the outbreak of World War II. The poem's most famous line entreats us to "love one another or die," part of a concluding stanza that envisions humanity, however slowly, overcoming the misery and mutual hatred that characterize war. But over time Auden seemed to regret this turn, possibly foreseeing the ways it would be appropriated in the future—most notably by Lyndon Johnson for his famous "Daisy" political ad—and changed the line in a future edition to "love one another and die." (Emphasis mine.) Eventually he asked editors to leave it out of his anthologies.
Still, there is something timeless in this date-titled poem. Surely Americans might recognize 2020 in the opening stanza, feeling themselves "uncertain and afraid/as the clever hopes expire/of a low dishonest decade." Eight decades on and we are still struggling to ward off despair. Yet what sticks with me are the various evocations of strangers and how important they are to us, how bound together our moral fates might be, previewed long before "one another" as "our private lives" remain remote even as we are packed together as "dense commuters," "each woman and each man" a part of "Collective Man." My favorite stanza begins with an image we are all missing in this year of isolation, and ends with a challenge to see ourselves as we really are, suggesting this is where redemption must begin:
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.
Read the whole thing on poets.org.