Why Auden Left: “September 1, 1939” and British Cultural Life

by guest contributor Spencer Lenfield

To make sense of the intellectual climate of Britain on the eve of the Second World War, one could do worse than to turn to the case of W.H. Auden. It would be less accurate to say that Auden chose to become an American citizen than that he chose not to be a British one. Politically discontented no matter where he lived, he was less irked by New York than he was by London. A trip to America to write a travel book with Christopher Isherwood grew permanent, and in 1946 he swapped nationalities for good, having identified himself as a “New Yorker” since 1939. It was there, rather than England, that he wrote the poem “September 1, 1939“—as Britain and America both realized that they would have to address, with renewed trenchancy and seriousness, the still-open question of whether to go to war with Germany over Polish sovereignty. The poem explicitly tries to make sense of its moment by interpreting the historical forces that brought it to pass, and finally arrives at a famous call to action: “We must love one another or die.” For many readers, the poem seems to distill almost perfectly the scent of what Auden later named “the age of anxiety”: fear and reluctance twinned with grit and humanity.

Except Auden himself hated the poem. He excluded it—vehemently—from nearly every edition of his collected works. Writing to the Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, he grumbled, “The reason (artistic) I left England and went to the U.S. was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1 1939’, the most dishonest poem I have ever written.” In particular, he hated the line “We must love one another or die,” remarking, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” Auden had a hard time living up to his own call to universal love. He did not want to have a cult, or at least not a British one, and he did not want to write the conscience of a generation into existence. He envisioned himself as an outsider, and was most comfortable when he was at a remove from others. “I left England in 1939 because the cultural life there was a family life,” he explained—not so much because the “cultural family” in question was especially warm or traditional (to the contrary, it could be cutting and delighted in breaking with propriety), but more because of a sense that the island environment was too claustrophobic for him to work.

So what about England in particular might have led Auden to set such thoughts on paper? And what made him reject them later as untrue? After all, “We must love one another or die” sounds resolutely cosmopolitan. The young, leftist Auden was hostile to nationalism of all kinds. From the vantage point of New York City, he writes:

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: (34-39)

Auden is, of course, worried about Fascism here (“the strength of Collective Man”). But he is also averse to the nationalism of liberal democracy, evident as the poem’s speaker looks upwards from 52nd Street, in the belly of Manhattan. It is in the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Manhattan that Auden senses the greatest strife—the sound of languages mingling in the thicket of the city. Auden attended a screening of the Nazi film Sieg im Poland in November of the same year: biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes, “When Poles appeared on the screen [Auden] was startled to hear a number of people in the audience scream, ‘Kill them!'” (282). But Auden later felt that his reaction against nationalism was as harmful to his work as nationalism itself. Not just in England, but also in America, he felt compelled to come up with a cant of magnanimous universalism because it spoke to the issues that presented themselves at the time—thereby taking him away, he claimed, from some deeper truth.

But how did Auden conceive of England in particular in the 1930s? He has two visions of the country: the one whose “cultural life is a family life” on one hand, and the one of cheap nationalism on the other. The problem is that the first vision defines itself in opposition to the second. Auden imagines himself and literary intellectuals as occupying a Britain apart, distinct from warmongers and imperialists; they are the hardy minority—those who are

. . . dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash[ing] out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages[.] (91-94)

The intelligentsia against the demagogues, the internationalists against the jingoists: Auden depicts cultural intellectuals as embattled heroes. Yet this image of the good few lost in the clashing of ignorant armies belies political reality: Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement lasted for years, through the Anschluss of Austria, and was hardly a minority view. Angus Calder cites the Times‘ remarks when Chamberlain returned from Munich: “No conqueror returning home from a victory on the battlefield has come home adorned with nobler laurels” (26). Auden conflates war with policy. But the end of the interwar years in Britain is not the story of an ironic few holding out against a war-hungry nationalist fervor; it was rather the effort of a majority to avert war until it was almost too late. Rearmament drives, urged by Churchill, were not taken up until late 1938. Even then, popular opposition was widespread. “A surprising number of Britons contemplated killing their families if war broke out,” Calder observes: “‘I’d sooner see kids dead than see them bombed like they are in some places,’ said one woman, thinking of Abyssinia and Spain” (22).

But if Auden’s historical reading veers wide of the facts, it is grounded in the perception that an imperial, aggressive Britain, together with the victorious parties of the Great War, had brought the revenge of an angry and resurgent Germany upon themselves, most clearly evident in the wake of the “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. (40-44)

The “long weekend” of the interwar years is mocked as so much self-delusion; it never really was peace as long as German resentment echoed beneath. What is at fault is not just Britain’s hubris, but “the international wrong”—in short, the terms worked out in the Treaty of Versailles. Auden adopts the language of Jungian psychopathology in the second stanza in an attempt to explain Hitler’s rise:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find out 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. (12-22)

The reduction of a major historical problem to a schoolmarm’s maxim stings with moral clarity—a tone that Auden later hoped to avoid or transcend.

But this sense of obvious wrongdoing had been widespread among the British intellectual elite since the conclusion of the last war. Auden more or less directly echoes Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, which depicts a benevolent, clumsy Wilson outfoxed by a vengeful Clemenceau and an impassive Lloyd George, who together set the conditions for the impoverishment of postwar Germany. Keynes was a friend of Auden’s, and one of his earliest financial backers. The conclusion of the Economic Consequences would have been taken as a given by their entire circle: “In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.” That sentence, freed from its moment, could have easily come from Auden.

It is easy to mistake the poem’s resounding moral appeal for a public clarion call for unity in Britain and America. But the target of Auden’s call is the “ironic points of light” of the cultural elite, standing in contrast to “the romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man in the street.” “We must love one another or die” is not a declaration of the state of Britain as Auden sees it; instead, it is what Britain must do, and is failing to do. The fact that, in retrospect, it appears as though Britain heeded Auden’s call—rallying together at the moment of its greatest need—makes it easy mistakenly to fashion “September 1, 1939” into a votive rather than an “ironic point of light.” This popular misreading of the poem seems like yet one more reason why Auden rejected it so vehemently: people took it to mean exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to say about the moment in which he was living and writing.

Spencer Lenfield graduated from Harvard with a concentration in modern European history and literature in 2012, and then received a second degree in Greats from Oxford in 2015. He currently works for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.


  1. I’d be grateful for a citation to the letter from Auden to Naomi Mitchison (note the correct spelling of her name). I’d love to be able to read the context for Auden’s remarks about “We must love one another or die.” Thanks.


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