Sept 1st, 1939: “We Must Love One Another or Die”

Is anyone commemorating today’s infamous memory? Or has September 1st 1939 been obliterated by September 11th 2001? One despot’s murderous march replaced by another’s killing flights.

That terrible moment when Poland was invaded brought with it a bursting onto the world’s consciousness of a word which has become a permanent part of our lexicon. Though it may be that many who use it now have no knowledge of its origins, today is the anniversary of the birth of the blitzkrieg.

The WestThis is dedicated to those ever fewer who are still alive, who remember where they were, what they were doing seventy-two years ago today…those of you who never thought you’d be here now, surrounded by a seemingly permanent state of global wars.

For the rest of us, it is vital to remember via the poets, the writers, and the historians whose energies were devoted to preserving for us the details of long-disappeared ‘present’ moments.

Auden’s truth of September 1 1939 remains true, though the world has become even more “a culture driven mad”…and his basic understanding of what we need has not changed at all, though its realization seems as distant as the stars:

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.


we must love one another or die

If you find poetry “difficult” or not to your liking, the wiki for this one may prove useful.

Our new killing word, “terrorism”, may not be permitted to remain in the realm of public discourse. And that erasure may be the worst blow of all…


by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

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 odour of death

Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do,

The elderly rubbish they talk

To an apathetic grave;

Analysed all in his book,

The enlightenment driven away,

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,

Each language pours its vain

Competitive excuse:

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream;

Out of the mirror they stare,

Imperialism’s face

And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar

Cling to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash

Important Persons shout

Is not so crude as our wish:

What mad Nijinsky wrote

About Diaghilev

Is true of the normal heart;

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark

Into the ethical life

The dense commuters come,

Repeating their morning vow;

‘I will be true to the wife,

I’ll concentrate more on my work,’

And helpless governors wake

To resume their compulsory game:

Who can release them now,

Who can reach the dead,

Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Because his lines often lent themselves to being lifted out of their contexts for political ends, Auden, who was fiercely apolitical in his later years, would sometimes remove earlier poems if they were thus employed…

…So it can be difficult to find a particular poem in a book — a very good reason for collecting a poet’s or novelist’s “Complete Works”. In Auden’s case, that seems to be a difficulty. I was sure we had such a book on our shelves, in fact I recall buying “the Complete” from a bookseller in Massachusetts shortly after Auden’s death. We discussed how one often had to wait for a poet’s death to get the complete works…which I did in 1974 or so. (He died in 1973).

I remember thinking how heavy it was at the time, and pondering the volumes of other works he’d left behind. But now all I can find are the old paperbacks of “Collections Edited by the Author”. And of those, none has this poem since he went about removing it. However, thanks to the miracle of cyberspace, you can find it here.

Auden would not have liked the license we have taken with his work (damn those politicians!) but he belongs to the ages now and as yet, we do not.

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