W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is an outpouring of disapproval and concern over the world’s current political state of affairs, as well as a personal manifesto of sorts. The speaker rails against all forms of authority he believes to be corrupt. The entire poem serves as a vehicle for the speaker to address the lies he perceives propagated by all types of government and law enforcement, ending with his wish to be a beacon of hope and truth in the face of the despair a world with such grave failures elicits. The speaker’s ideas, like those of the authority he denounces, seem at first glance noble and truthful, but upon further examination prove fraught with self-contradiction. Although he claims to be a rare bearer of bright truth in a world of dark, widespread lies, the speaker lies to himself and readers, the very public he is trying to protect. The speaker denounces the ruling elite and its power to twist the truth, but hypocritically takes on a role of corrupt poetic authority in order to do so.
Like those in power, the speaker possesses the ability to twist facts (or neutral circumstances portrayed as facts) into a potentially convincing support of his case. The speaker complains that the government fools people into believing their working lives are “the ethical life” (68) in the seventh stanza, insinuating that it is in fact full of false promises the state makes to the people and the latter in turn make to themselves. In the fifth stanza, he claims that all of our actions and possessions are to prevent us from realizing we are “[c]hildren afraid of the night / [w]ho have never been happy or good” (55), without providing any more evidence or explanation. Like those in power, the speaker is relating his completely subjective message, potentially damaging message to the public as a form of absolute truth.
The speaker’s declarations are not only subjective views of authority posing as pure truth, but are also too vague to provide adequate support for the issue at hand. The only solid examples of modern corrupt authority in the poem merely allude to it offhandedly. The date of the poem’s title is the day invaded and began World War II, and
, mentioned in line 29, is Hitler’s birthplace. The speaker throws in a mention of Thucydides, an ancient general wrongly deposed, which may give historical credence to his claim, but hardly supports any present day evidence. The speaker’s references to political corruption are so vague that footnotes are required to ensure that readers comprehend the meaning alluded to by all three. They are mentioned in a vague, implicit manner that might escape the layman – presumably the majority of the easily fooled public the speaker is trying to reach.
The speaker denounces imperialism and all other forms of government in the fourth stanza. The speaker talks about humanity as if he is on intimate terms with it and knows what it truly desires (“to be loved alone” (66)). These revelations must be taken in light of the speaker’s outraged, almost self-righteous mindset, as if he has some degree of omniscience, which is of course impossible. The speaker attempts to appeal to his readers when he laments, “All I have is a voice” (78), simultaneously evidencing his powerlessness and showing his similarity to and ending the poem with his hope of being a positive light in the face of darkness, despite his lack of strength/numbers.
Some of Auden’s language is blatantly contradictory. In one of the only vaguely optimistic metaphors in the entire poem, the speaker claims he is made “of Eros and of dust” (96), solely of love and earth, a romantic assertion for someone who just a stanza ago denounced the concept of the working man as “romantic” (80). In this case, the term is being used to expose the falseness of the romanticized image of the working man, but simultaneously reveals the misdirected belief people have in this image, a false confidence represented by the negative use of the word “romantic.” By using this term, the speaker expresses his disapproval of the sentimental quality of the views of his fellow men, but fails to account for the equally fanciful description of himself in line 96.
Contradiction is also present when the speaker states that “error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have” (61-63), which is to be loved apart from everyone else. By calling a wish for love “error,” the speaker implies that it is inherent within us to thirst for individual love, but still wrong and impossible, a contradiction in itself. The only example Auden gives of the veracity of this statement is a detail from an impassioned personal account of a relationship between a famous dancer and his impresario, also footnoted. The speaker claims that hunger mandates that both citizens and law enforcers, as well as all humans, “must love one another or die” (88). The speaker is suggesting that people must be merciful on a case by case basis, which is the only way universal love is attained. The idea of universal love cannot logically be present without a cohesion of numerous individual loves, a point the speaker ignores or discredits without even attempting to defend or explain away poetically.
The final overall conflict is the dichotomy between what the speaker professes and what he proposes, or what is actually physically able to be accomplished. By rejecting every form of government and self-supporting lifestyle, the speaker seems to contradict himself. The speaker is, in a way, lying to himself as he professes to be the only one who knows the truth and has the ability to speak it, but only denounces the wrongs of humanity without endorsing any reform or providing new alternatives. The speaker is basically implying that the only fair state of rule in the world is anarchy, which is inherently every man for himself, which has the potential to be just as bad and far worse than other forms of government.
The speaker’s opinions about the loopholes in the messages of such governments and authority are perhaps at a cursory glance truthful, but upon real examination prove inconsistent and mismatched. The assertions presented are vague, lacking in sufficient evidence, and therefore completely subjective. The speaker is forcibly disseminating his opinion on major issues and concepts, claiming their ultimate truth over those of authority, but his allegations are merely opinions, and unsupported ones at that – a fact he fails to acknowledge in the poem. In the end, the speaker inadvertently (or perhaps on purpose?) shows himself to be just as much a potentially corrupt poetic authority as the leaders of the world are political ones.