Sorry, this is a few days late, but the temperatures have been beastly in my neck of the woods. Too hot to run the ol' machine!

One of Auden’s beloved poems is “September 1, 1939,” composed upon the date of Germany’s invasion of Poland, essentially beginning the Second World War in Europe. Apart from its historical significance, the poem itself is a landmark example of 20th century poetry, in both form and meaning.

In terms of structure, the poem sharply departs from conventional verse. The meter isn’t one that we’d expect in a war (or a war-protest poem),where we’d look for tetrameter or a similar beat that would suggest a 4/4 “marching” rhythm. Instead we have short, staccato lines with two or three stresses. The tone is conversational and confessional, though not actually like a customer telling his troubles to a bartender. In the first stanza, the almost undetectable rhyme scheme does not call attention to itself, yet emphasizes the importance of the rhyming end words: dives/lives, afraid/decade (British pronunciation), earth/death (slant rhyme) and bright/night.

Overall, the structure sets up a highly serious tone, despite the word choice that seems trivial only upon first glance. “Dives” has a double meaning. As a noun referring to seedy urban watering holes, the word is colloquial, bordering on slang, yet it suggests the verb meaning “descending rapidly,” evoking a sense of degradation and lonely desperation. Peter Levine’s cogent analysis makes much of the notion that the speaker is sitting in a “gay bar,” with evidence of the Diaghliev-Nijinsky reference later in the poem.

I should admit that I was one of the readers who missed the gay theme; the mention of “52nd Street” has always made me think of the likes of Bird, Monk and company in the legendary jazz venues of the 1930s through 1950s. Aside from that, my opinion diverges from Levine’s in the fact that though the gay theme is present, the poem is much more inclusive, as shown in the line referring to “the error bred in the bone”--which incidentally is the source of the title of one of Robertson Davies’s novels–“of each woman and each man.” That everyone, male or female, “craves what it cannot have/ not universal love/but to be loved alone.” The public ideal (universal love) somehow always takes second place to personal desire. The former is an abstraction; the latter is rooted in the tangible here and now.

Despite that all-too-human fact, the main theme of the poem, all but spelled out within this refreshingly “accessible” poem, is the tension between the public and the private: how individuals can cope with the world’s recurring problems and perhaps respond to them in a meaningful way.

Auden reportedly despised his oft-quoted line-- “We must love another or die” – trotted out by all manner of good-intentioned “Kumbaya” keynote speakers. Levine’s brilliant interpretation explains that Auden realized that the line is not actually true, since eventually we’re all going to die whether we love each other or not. Additionally, I think that Auden might have felt that the line was too pat, lacked subtlety, and did not sufficiently capture the multi-layered significance of his theme.

With admirable candor, the speaker does not adopt a holier-than-thou position above the“dense commuters.” He acknowledges that he too, is vulnerable:“ composed like them of Eros and of dust.” The average man (and woman) on the street is susceptible to a weak will against seemingly insurmountable evil. Yet thrown into a turbulently perilous world we can attempt to rise above our petty and selfish concerns and “show an affirming flame.”