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What is the Significance of the Title in Auden’s ‘1st September 1939’?


The title of Auden’s poem, ‘1st September 1939’ signifies the day the Second World War started. From this, we can interpret just from the title that the poem will be related to the Second World War. The poem has had controversial views since in stanza eight, Auden’s ultimate message about the war is embarrassingly simple, ‘We must love one another or die’. From this, Auden later removed the whole concluded stanza stating that the whole poem is, ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’. The poem signifies more importantly the viewpoint of an American to the start of the Second World War. Having not been included in the war yet, Auden mentions the American public’s viewpoint to this whole world disaster.
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            The title of the poem, ‘1st September 1939’ is a historical moment in time making it clear the poem was wrote in this historical moment of time. We can strengthen this viewpoint from the first line of the poem, ‘I sit in one of the dives’, referring to how Auden is in a bar writing this poem as this moment in time. From this, there is no form of hindsight in the poem. The poem was written at the start of the Second World War. Auden doesn’t know yet what is to happen in the years to come. The date also has reference to the time Auden first came over to America (he came over in the year 1939). He and his (marriage in convenience) wife, Erika Mann, migrated to America which by some historians was considered a flight from danger on the eve of war in Europe. Auden met his future partner Chester Kallman in America (he was homosexual) and taught at a number of American universities. He was by far happier in America which was a reason why he stayed there until 1972, where he left America when his health started to decline. From this, I see Auden as very contradictory. He claims in the fifth stanza that, ‘The lights must never go out, The music must always play’. The use of alliteration of ‘must’ and strong words such as ‘never’ and always’ makes it clear what Auden’s views are on America and the war. He believes the ‘lights’ and ‘music’ in the bar (‘Faces along the bar’) are helping to distract the people from what’s going on in Europe. I believe this is true which is making Auden just as bad as the American public if not worse. He left Europe to come to a country where it’s clear he thinks it is possible to forget what’s going on in Europe.

            The title of the poem strongly suggests the Auden is trying to talk to people that are in the same moment of history that the poem was written in: ‘1st September 1939’. As I have already mentioned, he states how the American public are trying to turn their backs on what is going on in Europe. This is most clear in stanza four. The first sentence, ‘In this neutral air’ relates to America who didn’t take sides until 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. The stanza then goes on to describe the skyscrapers of New York as ‘blind’ connecting with America’s neutral point of view who are turning a blind eye to the war hoping if they don’t notice it, it won’t affect them. However, from doing this, it is clear that they were far less prepared when attacked in 1941. Auden goes on to describe the American public as, ‘In an euphoric dream’. With euphoric meaning high almost like drugged, Auden believes that the Americans are living in an extremely delusional dream away from war. His opinion on America is generally positive. However, he takes note how oblivious America are to the war. This makes America come across as a selfish country. They won’t offer any help to England in the war because they feel they don’t need to. The only time they entered the war was when they were under threat and were forced to join. Therefore, Auden’s message here to America is to take notice of what’s going on in the war and possibly help England win it. This could have saved millions of lives as the firepower of England and America would have forced Germany very much back to Berlin. America thought they were beyond attack in this era. They were attempting isolationism. However, with many countries such as Russia and Germany run by dictators or in Auden’s eyes, ‘psychopathic god(s)’, you cannot isolate yourself as a country who believes they are oblivious to being attacked. This made the attack of Pearl harbour even more dramatic and shocking to the public of America.

            The title, ‘1st September 1939’ identifies to us that this poem is going to be pivotal. This date can be considered by historians one of the most important dates ever as it plunges the whole world into what could be seen as a dark age. From this, the reader will expect the poem as pivotal from the title it adopts of which it does. Including opinions on America on the start of war and Hitler, Auden’s poem produces strong meanings which the public may not agree on especially the American public. This is why Auden is uncomfortable about stanza eight with the meaning, ‘We must love one another or die’, and its simplicity. A poem that explores such a historical moment in time deserves a far greater meaning than Auden has presented us with.

            Ultimately, I believe that the title’s significance is in contrasting America against the world. It identifies what this poem is to be about preparing the reader for a poem that will talk about one of the historical moments ever. However, I believe the title primarily makes clear to the reader America’s selfishness to perform isolationism. The date ‘1st September 1939’ from a German, English, Canadian, French, Australian, Italian and just about every other country who was in the war represents a day that should never be forgotten. It was the day that determined the lives of millions. It was the day the world went to war. Now, juxtaposing that to Americans, the date ‘1st September 1939’ will be seen as a day they didn’t like too much at the time: that’s all. Their ‘1st September 1939’ day was 7th December 1942. It is clear that the opinions on the title from an American point of view at the time are very much different to an English point of view. Auden, born in York, has pointed this out and identifies to the reader his thoughts on this. He has come to a country wanting to be separated from the world: to be left alone. Due to this, Auden has aimed the poem at America, criticising their lack of involvement in one of the most important events ever of the history of mankind.

About Will Green

A student in England studying Automotive Engineering with Motorsport, Will created Ask Will Online back in 2010 to help students revise and bloggers make money. You can follow AskWillOnline via @AskWillOnline.

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