W W.H. Auden

1st September, 1939 by W.H. Auden

The poem, ‘1st September, 1939’ by W.H. Auden, was occasioned by Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. In this poem, the poet expresses his shock at the news. In the present stanza, he expresses his view that Germany alone is not to blame for starting the Great War. He says that correct research into the thinking of the German people from Martin Luther’s times to the present age can lead us to the conclusion that the Germans are great lovers of national freedom, self-respect, and national honor. The researches can also reveal the whole nature of the offense which lies embedded in the Versailles Treaty of 1918 and which has inflicted a great psychological wound on the German mind.

1st September 1939 by W.H. Auden


1st September, 1939 Analysis

I sit in one of the dives


A psychopathic god:

The poem can be read in full here and more poetry by W.H. Auden here.

Its violent reaction has now driven the German nation mad with anger and with a thirst for revenge. Researches should also be made to find out what wrongs Hitler suffered during his childhood and youth at Linz, a town in Upper Austria, and what great psychological wound his German nationalist mind incurred from the German defeat in the First World War (1914 to 1918) and from the Versailles Treaty. For those, psychological wounds have turned him into an insane German god. The poet implies that Nazi Germany and her dictator Adolf Hitler have been made almost insane by the psychological blows they have suffered.

I and the public know


To an apathetic grave;

In these lines, the poet expresses the view that demarcates and dictators have beguiled the people since ancient times. He says that having been exiled from Athens, Thucydides wrote a critical history of the Peloponnesian War (43 to 1408 B.C.). It was fought between the republic of Athens and that of Sparta. In his book, he has described the nature of the speeches of democrats and dictators about democracy. He has described the behavior of ruling dictators, and also the nature of the serious-looking nonsensical, promises they make to the people. Moreover, he has also commented on the nature of the common people. According to him, they are not only indifferent to politics, at heart, but are also intellectually dead. Auden implies that the nature of dictators and that of the people has not changed even today.

Analysed all in his book,


To make this fort assume

In this stanza, the poet says that the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany has shaken the Americans at heart, although outwardly they are indifferent to it. He says that all the activities of American life are going on as usual. They have not been disturbed by the Great War which has begun. The indifference of Americans shows that they feel as safe and secure as one feels at home. But the American Government is calm and quiet lest the Americans should see the dangerous situation they are in. As a matter of fact, the American s and Europeans are like the children who have got lost in a haunted wood.

And they are afraid of the night which has come on them. He adds that they have never been happy with their lot, and never good to one another. W.H. Auden implies that they are children because they are still immature and start fighting with one another. They are in a haunted wood, because all of them are still like wild beasts to one another. The night which has come on them is the night of the present World War. That they have never been happy with their lot is evident from their imperialistic policies. And they are not good as evident from the fact that they exploit the poor and the weak at home and abroad.

The furniture of home;


Who can speak for the dumb?

In the above lines, the poet describes the nature of the task his poetic voice has to perform in America. He says that he possesses only his poetic voice, and no other power, to undo the evil beliefs prevalent in America and elsewhere. The first evil is the conservative ignorance of the religious-minded. Then there is the fictitious lie of individualism. Its doctrine declares that nothing exists but the individual self. This doctrine rules over the mind of the materialistic man-in-the-street. The third evil theory is the lie of authoritarianism. It has declared state authority to b as high as the sky. And it has set state authority above the individual’s liberty. Auden mentioned evils ruling over the minds of the people. And he has to contradict them by means of his poetic power.

All I have is a voice


And the lie of Authority

In these foregoing lines, the poet says that his poetic voice has to undo the fictitious doctrines of authoritarianism and individualism. In this stanza, he argues against them. He says that the State has no existence independent of the people. The State authority is therefore the authority of the people. It is, therefore to be used for the good of the people, not to suppress their liberty. The state authority has no natural basis for itself. For example, the policeman is the unit of the State authority.

But he is as much subject to hunger as a citizen. The theory of Authoritarianism is hence unfounded. It is a falsehood. As regards individualism, no one can live by oneself, without the company or help of others. Evidently, the theory of absolute individualism is also baseless, and an outright lie. The poet then concludes that all the citizens and also the citizens and the man in power, must love one another as equals; or else they shall live and die, in the misery of selfish love.

Whose buildings grope the sky:


Show an affirming flame.

In these last lines of the poem, the poet says that today the people of the world have no armor of faith against the attack of the devil. They also lie stupefied in the night of ignorance. Yet some righteous men still illuminate the dark of their ignorance with flashes of their spiritual light, here and there, now and then. The poet says that, like the righteous, he is also made up of a righteous soul and physical body. He is also surrounded by the people of the same negation of faith and despair.

He, therefore prays to God that he may also fill his poetry with spiritual light like them. He prays that the elements of his spiritual light may be a positive flame on faith in God and His ways, and also the selfless universal love called agape. The poet implies that he intends to compose poetry of religious themes. It will be filled with spiritual light whose elements are faith and selfless Christian brotherly universal love.

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
  • Hi

    You say

    “The poet says that, like the righteous, he is also made up of a righteous soul and physical body.”

    He does not say this. Eros was the God of passion and fertility. Surely what he is saying that like the Just, he is made by and of the same elements. Sex and physical matter. He is saying also that the has the same sufferings; negation and despair. He is asking for the strength to be like the Just and have the strength toshow them he is listening and is of a like mind

    I know he didn’t like this last stanza as it can be read as a sort of triumphalism. I don’t know what was in his mind when he wrote it, but I think that it isn’t about blind hope or fantasy, but about a way of living in a dark and troubled world. He is saying that although we may live in darkness there are people that light the way.

    A religious person may like to write,

    May I composed like them
    Of a mortal soul,
    Beleaguered by the same human frailty and fear
    Show an affirming flame.

    In fact Auden lost interest in religion. He was homosexual. This poem is not just about war, but societies’ prejudice and lack of justice towards people like homosexuals and others who don’t conform. Given the Christian Churches treatment of homosexuals during Auden’s lifetime, why would he write a poem in code that was about God and the Devil?

    He may have been thinking about Christ and the beatifications, but this poem is grounded in secular man. It’s not about religion.

    I am not disrespecting your beliefs as I am a Christian, but Christians have God given minds and have nothing to fear from God if they use them to understand the world and do good.

    Conflating Christian dogma with everything done or written is just wrong, and it disrespects people who don’t hold our beliefs.

    Best regards

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is a very compelling argument and shows a clear knowledge and understanding of Auden’s work. Thank you for adding this as I really think it helps!

  • >

    Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

    Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

    Ad blocker detected

    To create the home of poetry, we fund this through advertising

    Please help us help you by disabling your ad blocker


    We appreciate your support

    The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

    Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

    Share via
    Copy link
    Powered by Social Snap