Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” click below:
I want to turn today to the question of W. H. Auden and what happened to him just as the world was going mad.
Auden was hardly the only one left disoriented—shattered—by the outbreak of World War II, but I think his response to the war—his poem “September 1, 1939”—offers a uniquely powerful illustration of what happens to us when everything we think we know becomes uncertain.
The poem receded for decades—in no small part because Auden didn’t care for it—but after the attacks of 9/11, it achieved a newfound fame. It was especially popular in New York City, where the Twin Towers once stood, and because that’s where Auden wrote it. As he says in the poem’s opening lines:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
That is a good opening.
What comes next is even more grabbing:
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade: