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1st September 1939 by W.H. Auden Analysis

Just like with many of Wystan Hugh Auden’s poem’s, he has reference to a time period. However, instead of being vague such as in O What Is That Sound? and If I Could Tell You, Auden makes clear the time period he is referring to being 1st September 1939 which was also known as the start of the second world war. This poem is a historical moment in time. Below is a complete analysis of the form, structure and language of the poem. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.



  • There is no recognisable form Auden uses for this poem.
  • The poem echoes the stanza form of Easter, 1916 which was another poem about an important historical event.
  • There are no characters in the poem due to it being about a historical moment in time. For this reason, the voice is Auden himself who lived through 1st September 1939.
  • Due to the fact that Auden is talking is talking to himself, we are the silent listeners to this poem.


  • There is no pattern to the rhyming or the rhythm.
  • The only structure in the poem is the 11 line stanzas.
  • The instability of the rhythm and rhyming could reflect the historical context where many countries felt unstable at the time too.


Stanza One

  • This is a poem that speaks to people in that moment of history.
  • 1939 was the year Auden moved to America and stayed there because he liked it.
  • The date 1st September 1939 signifies the start of WWII where England declared war on Germany. Therefore, the poem is was wrote at the start of the the war and not in hindsight.
  • The opening line, ‘I sit in one of the dives’, suggests the poem was wrote on the spot while Auden was in an cheap American bar.
  • The ‘Fifty-second street’ is not the best street to be associated with because it was where homosexuals lived like Auden.
  • ‘As the clever hopes expire’ is ironic.
  • ‘Of a low dishonest decade’ is of a moral low point being the the Spanish civil war which Auden was an ambulance driver in.
  • There is contrast between ‘bright / And darkened‘.
  • ‘Offends the September night’. The way in which Nazis kill people is offending.

Stanza Two

Dictators seek to be loved. But, the answer is not to love one person but to have universal love.
  • ‘Luther’ was a religious German figure who started the reformation of the Catholic Church to Catholic and Protestant.
  • ‘That has a driven a culture mad’ makes clear that Auden feels all Germans are bad.
  • ‘Linz’ is Hitler’s birthplace.
  • ‘huge imago made / A psychopathic god’. An imago is the metamorphosis stage of an insect comparing Hitler to a bug. This is psychoanalytical because German people responded to Hitler in an unconscious way.
  • ‘Do evil in return’ is the German’s response to the Treaty of Versailles. This is a critization of the Treat because it gave the Germans an excuse.

Stanza Three

  • This stanza is located in the past.
  • ‘Thucydides’ was a historian who wrote about Roman Empires being the battles between dictators and democrats.
  • ‘elderly rubbish’ refers to the out of date nonsense Hitler speaks about.
  • The rhyming of ‘pain’ and ‘gain’ emphasises the painful repetition of history.

Stanza Four

  • We have now had a time shift forward bringing us back to the present day.
  • The ‘neutral air’ refers to America because they didn’t take sides until 1942.
  • The ‘blind skyscrapers’ again refers to America turning a blind eye with what was going on in Europe. The skyscrapers and ‘Collective Man’ is a bold statement celebrating democracy.
  • ‘Each language pours its vain’ For the out pour of language to be vain means its useless. The ‘Collective Man’ is hopeless. The ineffective connotations of the word indicates that Auden doesn’t think the Collective Man is strong.
  • Americans are living in a ‘euphoric dream’ away from war (like they are drugged). They are living in a dream that isn’t realist but total fantasy.
  • The mood of this stanza is negative.
  • The ‘Imperialism’s face’ refers to power from Great Britain and the 3rd Reich but more probably Hitler and the wrong doings he’s committing.

Stanza Five

  • By using ‘Cling’ suggests desperation.
  • ‘The lights must never go out, / The music must always play’. The lights and music in the bar are helping to distract the people from what is going on in Europe.
  • ‘All the conventions conspire’.  The use of alliteration emphasises the point for desperation to scheme: the lights and music can be viewed as a conspiracy or a lie.The word ‘conspire’ is a polite word for scheming.
  • If you are in a ‘fort’, you must have something to be scared about.
  • Auden makes reference to fairytale conventional words such as ‘wood’ and ‘children’. This compares the people in the bar to those of a fairytale which are scared.

Stanza Six

This stanza is about how dictators, such as Hitler, crave to be loved by their people.
  • Auden calls for violence, ‘windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout’ highlighting the vulnerability of the people in the pub that treat the pub like a fortress. The ‘Important’ people are shouting hot air (talking about rubbish about the war).
  • Using the word ‘crude’ is simple and blunt: ordinary people have a simple and blunt desire.
  • ‘Nikinsky’ and ‘Diaghilev’ were two famous gay ballet dancers. This interested Auden because they were publicly gay unlike Auden.
  • The simple desire of most people is to have someone to love them. They are not interested in universal love.
  • ‘But to be loved alone’ is a selfish kind of love. This is a criticism of Hitler who wants to be loved alone.

Stanza Seven

  • ‘conservative’ means to keep things the same.
  • The line, ‘Repeating their morning vow’, and the word ‘compulsory’ gives a strong sense of repetition and parallelism: providing evidence towards people’s mechanical existence. It also makes clear that people work hard.
  • There is parallelism of the beginning of the last three lines with ‘Who can’. Auden wants to know how we can make the people realise and listen to what’s going on. He feels alienated to normal American life because he is gay.

Stanza Eight

  • ‘All I have is a voice’. The role of a poet is to speak the truth and show his opinion.
  • ‘To undo the folded lie’ makes clear everyone is lying.
  • There is reference to the skyscrapers of stanza four, ‘buildings grope in the sky’.
  • Auden wants to make clear that dictators have to care for their people. This is not the case because there are people dying and being prosecuted in Germany. Alot of the people in Germany have no choice.
  • ‘There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone’. The ‘State’ is a collected group of people. The quote is a deliberate paradox to bring the point forward that we have to think about the people in general.
  • Auden talks about the message of this poem in this stanza, ‘We must love one another or die’. He later excluded this from his poem because he was embarrassed by the simplicity of the answer to what was going on in Europe.

Stanza Nine

  • Auden thinks he is one of the lights being one of the ‘Ironic points of light’.
  • The ‘Flash out’ refers to Morse Code that was used by the English to communicate secretly.
  • The line ‘Of Eros and of dust’ has reference to Adam and Eve. With Eros meaning love, Adam and Eve were made from dust and matter to love
  • ‘Beleaguered by the same’ makes clear his is under pressure and endangered: a world covered in darkness is sleepy and defenceless.
  • There are mixtures of hopelessness and hopefulness.
  • Auden wants countries to wake up and do something about Germany.



  • The poem copies the form from Easter, 1916 which was another poem about a historical event.
  • The only real structure is with the stanza lengths constant at 11 lines long.
  • The meaning to the poem was embaressing from Auden’s perspective who later removed it ‘We must love one another or die’.
  • The general mood is negative criticizing overall dictatorship and specific dictators such as Hitler.
  • There is a lot of history involved with this poem (AO4). America was hiding themselves from the war in Europe and Auden saw this. However, from him moving over to America and staying over there when the war started in Europe can be seen as him being a hypocrite.
Be sure to check out other poems I have analysed on Ask Will Online. Also check out PoemAnalysis.com that has one of, if not the, largest database  of poetry analysis online – if I have not analysed a poem you are looking for on Ask Will Online, you will find it on PoemAnalysis.com.


  1. Anonymous April 22, 2013
  2. Anonymous May 14, 2013
  3. Anonymous April 19, 2014
  4. Anonymous October 23, 2014
  5. Anonymous October 25, 2014
  6. Vicki Foo February 23, 2015
  7. Anonymous May 3, 2015
  8. Anonymous May 3, 2015
  9. ganesh April 1, 2016

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