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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

W. H. Auden, A. J. Liebling: September 1 writings frame World War II in Europe

The nonaggression pact signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, between Germany and the Soviet Union included a secret clause providing for the partition of Poland between the two signing powers. On September 1, German tanks and planes invaded Poland on three fronts and World War II began. The outbreak stirred W. H. Auden, 32 and newly arrived in the United States in January, to write one of his most anthologized poems, “September 1, 1939,” first published in The New Republic on October 18 of that year.

Set in “one of the dives/On Fifty-Second Street” the 99-line poem attempts to locate the individual’s place in the world historical order. Whether Auden actually wrote it in a Manhattan bar or in the home of the father of his lover Chester Kallman is a matter of some dispute. In later years, as Auden moved away from politics, he came to disown the poem, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” especially its most famous stanza:
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.
The last line of this stanza—its most quoted line—troubled Auden the most, since we die whether we love one another or not. At one point, in granting permission to Oscar Williams to reprint the poem in an anthology in 1955, Auden changed the line to “We must love one another and die.”

Listen to Dylan Thomas read “September 1, 1939.”
Read the entire poem.

Five years later, on September 1, 1944, A. J. Liebling dispatched one of his most famous “Letters from Paris.” The Allied Forces had liberated Paris on August 25 and Liebling captures the joy and relief of a city transformed: “For the first time in my life and probably the last, I have lived for a week in a great city where everybody is happy. Moreover, since the city is Paris, everybody makes this euphoria manifest.”

As Liebling details how different factions in Paris came together to defeat their occupiers, his account can almost be seen as a response to the charge in Auden’s poem:
Happiest of all . . . are the police, who stand at street intersections with their thumbs in their belts and beam paternally at everybody instead of looking stern and important, as they used to. . . . For Paris, where the street cry has always been “A bas les flics!” (Down with the cops!), this is behavior so unprecedented that the cops sometimes look as though they think it is all a dream. There is good reason for the change of heart; for the first time since Etienne Marcel led a street mob against the royal court in about 1350, the police and the people have been on the same side of the barricades. It was the police who, on August 15th, gave the signal for a mass disregard of the Germans by going on strike. It was also the police who, four days later, began the street fighting by seizing the Prefecture of the Seine, their headquarters. . . . Three thousand of them, in plainclothes and armed with carbines, revolvers, and a few sub-machine guns, took the place over and defended it successfully for six days before being relieved by the arrival of the French armored division of General Leclerc.
Aiding the police were “boys fourteen or fifteen years old” who destroyed tanks by throwing bottles of incendiary fluid through their ports. “The youngsters who did the fighting were not always of the type that is ordinarily on good terms with the police. They included problem children of every neighborhood as well as students and factory workers. So the oldest of all Paris feuds has ended.”

Read the entire “Letter from Paris, September 1, 1944” (PDF).

Related LOA works: Poets of World War II; A. J. Liebling: World War II Writings

1 comment:

  1. Loved the A.J. Liebling piece so much. I could feel the excitement, not just watch it from afar.


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