W.H. Auden is an outstanding poet of the 20th century whose works are still popular and relevant. Among his most famous and favorite poems may be named September 1, 1939, which, being written just after the start of the World War II in response to German aggression, is considered by many as still relevant and applicable to the recent events September 11, in the US. What makes this poem noteworthy and exciting to read and analyze is its stylistic richness, skillful use of symbolism and imagery.
Reference to Linz
Among all the variety of symbols, primarily it is probably necessary to refer to what was one of the main reasons or motives that made W.H. Auden write this poem. In fact, the author wrote the poem under the impression of the German invasion of Poland, which he apparently reprimanded and condemned. Naturally in such a situation and having such a mood W.H. Auden perceived Hitler as the evil mind that is the initiator and the chief organizer of the war that might have terrible consequences for the whole mankind. Not surprisingly that in his poem he pays a lot of attention to this theme and hints at the evil genius of Hitler that is the primary cause of all evils of the war.
The references to this theme may be easily found in the second stanza where the author directly indicates at Hitler firstly naming his native town Linz, where he was born, and it is not difficult to guess that it is Hitler that was that
huge imago made
A psychopathic god
Naturally, the author uses image, which is traditionally defined as an idealized image of a person, usually a parent, formed in childhood and persisting unconsciously into adulthood, intentionally in order to probably explain that Hitler became a psychopathic god not occasionally but rather in the result of his socio-cultural mentality, i.e., socio-cultural beliefs that his mind absorbed in his childhood.
Moreover, such a reference to a psychological term makes also clear Auden’s reference to Luther as one of the most significant individuals in the history of Germany and Europe. In other words, the author hints that it was Luther’s ideas that partially influenced the psychology and mentality of Hitler. In fact, it is quite easy to find parallels between both Luther and Hitler since both were well known for their ideology of anti-Semitism. As a result, it is possible to presuppose that Auden explains the origin of Hitler’s nationalist and anti-Semitic views by conservative German culture but, on the other hand, the author denies such opinions as making the culture mad.
Consequently, the poet uses the correlation between past and present history to explain and warn against revolutionary and extreme ideas that could be potentially used for evil purposes. It is why he reminds the postulate known to each since childhood that
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return
These lines sound like a warning to Nazi Germany that it will face a stiff resistance of all those unfairly abused by Nazi regime.
Reference to Thucydides
Another fascinating reference W.H. Auden uses in his poem is the personality of Thucydides, an ancient Greek general who was known for his anti-dictatorship positions. In fact, it was one of the reasons why he was exiled from his motherland because severely criticised Athenian imperialism and warned that it might eventually result in the establishment of a dictatorship. As the poet remarks, this ancient general knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do
And again the link to the historical epoch when the poem was written may be easily traced because totalitarian regime established in Germany was a great threat to the world democracy, and Hitler, as well as fascist leaders in other countries, was a typical dictator whose actions are unpredictable and as a rule extremely dangerous for democracy and stability in the society.
Furthermore, in this stanza, the author hints at the great abilities of Hitler as an orator, which made him a leader of the nation and a dictator at the same time. On the other hand, the poet warns a reader against the speeches dictators to say since the elderly rubbish they talk eventually leads to
The habit forming pain
Mismanagement and grief
Obviously, W.H. Auden refers to Pericles funeral oration for dead Athenian soldiers indirectly implying that such speeches, being eloquent and impressive, are not always sincere and such eloquence may be used for terrible purposes by such people as Hitler.
Thus, the poet refers to the ancient Greece as a symbolic comparison to the contemporary world and his reference to Thucydides is a kind of appeal to all democratic forces to express their position openly and resist to Hitler’s dictatorship even though it may threaten by exile or even more severe punishment.
The correlation between the poem and September 11
Nowadays, many readers find numerous associations between the events and ideas described in verse by W.H. Auden and the tragedy of September 11. In fact, it is possible to trace significant similarities between the tragedies separated in time by United in their psychological and moral depth.
So, speaking about the relevance of the poem to September 11, it is primarily necessary to point out that the setting of the poem starts in Manhattan, New York, i.e. the location introduce a reader to the place where the tragedy occurred. The impression of approaching tragedy is enforced significantly by the lines full of uncertainty and expectation of some terrible events:
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable ordour of death
Offends the September night.
These lines mysteriously remind the description of New York after the tragic terror attack when thousands of people died and a lot suffered nationwide. In fact, September 11, was the day when the odour of death could have been smelled as close as probably never before in the US history.
Furthermore, the poet tells about the danger to democracy posed by evil forces, and it is like another challenge to democracy and the society, which face the grief, pain, and anger that
We must suffer them all again
Not less strikingly sound the following lines:
Into the neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The Strength of Collective Man
This neutrality nowadays may be viewed as the innocence of the people that were in the towers, which were the symbol of the power and self-assurance of the whole American society for its safety. But the author says that it is just a euphoric dream and the evil is still somewhere nearby and inevitably people will face
And the international wrong
That nowadays seems as a warning against the danger of international terrorism.
Also, some readers may find some relevance of the poem to the tragedy of September 11 in the lines concerning helpless governors who turned to be unable to prevent the terror attacks
and as a result
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies
Thus, it is possible to conclude that W.H. Auden has managed to create a poem in which he reveals the atmosphere of the great human tragedy caused by terrible actions of evil forces that aim at the destruction of the democratic and flourishing world. What is probably even more important is the poem’s power to remain relevant until the present moment.