Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry: Explained, SEPTEMBER 1. 1939, by WYSTAN HUGH AUDEN

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

SEPTEMBER 1. 1939, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"1-SEP-39" by W.H. Auden is a contemplative and deeply moving poem about the onset of World War II, named so as it's written on the day the war was declared, 1st September 1939. Auden, an influential English poet known for his political and social commentary, meditates on the impacts of war, the human condition, and the necessity of love and empathy in times of darkness.

The poem opens with the speaker situated in a bar on Fifty-second Street, which provides the geographical context of the United States, marking Auden's recent emigration from Britain. The opening lines paint a picture of fear and uncertainty, setting the tone for the poem, which mirrors the global sentiment at the start of the war.

Auden employs the extended metaphor of the "low dishonest decade," referring to the 1930s, to represent a time of broken promises, disillusionment, and the rise of totalitarian regimes. The poem then transitions into a general lament for the trajectory of human history, which has led to the present crisis. There's a reference to Martin Luther and his role in religious schism, and a cryptic mention of the events at Linz - the Austrian hometown of Adolf Hitler - linking the past to the turbulent present.

Throughout the poem, Auden makes effective use of several poetic devices. He incorporates personification, as seen in "blind skyscrapers" that "proclaim/ The strength of Collective Man," symbolizing the overwhelming power structures within society. There is also the use of irony, particularly in "Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages," underscoring the tragic futility of war yet hinting at resistance.

The form of the poem is worth noting. It consists of nine 11-line stanzas with an irregular rhyme scheme. This irregularity seems to echo the discord and disorder of the time.

Auden also provides a critique of society and human nature. He speaks about the "normal heart" that craves to be loved alone, pointing out the inherent selfishness in human beings that contributes to societal problems. He critiques the "lie of Authority," denying the validity of the State, arguing instead that in times of crisis like war, hunger and need erase all artificial social constructs.

However, the poem isn't entirely pessimistic. Auden proposes a solution in the line, "We must love one another or die," suggesting that mutual love and empathy are essential to human survival in such trying times. The closing line, "Show an affirming flame," suggests a commitment to resistance and the possibility of hope, even amidst despair.

In conclusion, "1-SEP-39" is a profound examination of a world on the brink of war. Auden captures the prevailing sense of dread, critiques the societal and personal shortcomings that have led to such circumstances, and calls for empathy and love as a means to survival. It's a testimony to his genius that this poem, though written in a specific historical context, continues to resonate today, emphasizing the poet's timeless relevance.

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