April 26, 2002


Shame the Devil : In the wake of September 11, everyone was quoting W.H Auden's "September 1, 1939." But Auden himself repudiated the poem's most famous lines. (Alan Jacobs, March/April 2002, Books & Culture)
Casting his mind across the ocean, then, to the continent he had recently abandoned--largely because of the relentless pressures and expectations it
held for him--Auden was moved to consider the question that one always considers in such situations: why did this horrible event happen? And his answer would become one of the two most famous moments in this very famous poem:

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.

This is basically the argument of John Maynard Keynes's book of 1919, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, only in simplified and moralized form: the countries that had placed such an enormous financial and moral burden on Germany with the Treaty of Versailles were responsible for the events of September 1, and only pedantry or manipulative political rhetoric could mask that responsibility. And Auden emphasizes that he speaks not for himself only: anticipating those pedants and politicians, he masses the wisdom of "the public" and "schoolchildren." The appeal is palpably democratic, but the tone hieratic; the prophetic here wells up from below, rather than descending from on high. [...]

[T]he other comes in the penultimate stanza:

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.


[O]nly Eric McHenry, to my knowledge, has noted one of the most interesting and significant facts about the poem: that within five years of writing it Auden had completely repudiated it, and eventually excluded it from all collections of his poems over which he had control. Why and how did this happen?

Most will recognize this poem which got beaten like a dead horse after 9-11. This is a revealing look at how Auden came to realize the moral emptiness of his initial response to the outbreak of WWII and how he came to regret the prophetic tone of his pronouncements. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2002 8:32 AM
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