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The right poem for the wrong time: WH Auden’s September 1, 1939

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Despite the poet’s best attempts to destroy it, readers still turn to his poem about Germany’s invasion of Poland in times of crisis. Why?

There are many acclaimed poems that address themselves to the question of love. There are many that address themselves to the problems of war. There are others, both ancient and modern, that seem to speak directly to our contemporary condition, and to various crises, fears and threats of annihilation. There are poems that console, inspire and delight. And there are some poems – a very few – that do all of the above. WH Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, written 80 years ago, is an example.

“September 1, 1939” is undoubtedly one of the great poems of the 20th century, one that marks the beginning of the second world war and which readers have returned to at times of national and personal crisis. It is also a work that Auden came to despise, and whose troubled history therefore provides us with a rare glimpse of a writer in the act of self-invention and self-reinvention, and with a unique insight into the many ways in which a poem might be interpreted, misinterpreted, used, reused, appropriated and recycled. “September 1, 1939” is a lesson in how masterpieces are produced and consumed and become incorporated into people’s lives – how, in the words of another of Auden’s poems, “In Memory of WB Yeats”, the work of a poet becomes “modified in the guts of the living”.

It is the most famous example in history of a writer attempting to revise his work, and of readers refusing to allow it

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:

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