“A Low Dishonest Decade”: The Poet Points the Way Upward

Image for post
Image for post

On September 1, 1939, a poet walked into a New York bar and, surveying the darkening world of his time, wrote a poem dedicated to that day. It was, of course, the day Germany invaded Poland, and sentient people knew in their bones that war was coming; in fact, it would be a world war, another one, so soon after the first.

Remarkably, that poem speaks to us now in our own darkening times. Not that a world war seems imminent, though who knows where president Donald Trump’s reckless order to have Iran’s top general killed by drone will lead us? In other ways, though, the poem — “September 1, 1939” by English poet W.H. Auden — resonates now, chiming with the universally poor marks given the decade that has just closed.

The end of a decade and the advent of a new one always generate commentary — and grades — from the world’s commentariat, and the 2010s have, in a word, flunked. Politically and culturally, it was deemed “a decade of disillusionment” and “the end of normal.” With both the erosion of democracy around the world and the rise of a new generation of dictators, it was, as the Brookings Institution states flatly, “a horrid decade for those who aspire to a more cooperative and freer world.”

In fact, in America we might call the 2010s — which saw the tenure of the admirable and temperate Barack Obama, our first African-American president, give way, in a reactionary paroxysm, to the racist, lying, corrupt, amoral, and endlessly angry Trump — a “low dishonest decade,” just as Auden said of the 1930s. (It’s a match: Trump is likewise low and dishonest.) The collapse of Obama’s signature “audacity of hope” into Trump’s hot mess, and the self-immolation of America as Leader of the Free World into a dangerous and heedless behemoth not to be trusted — all this ruin occurring in just four years — has shocked sentient Americans to their core.

We can relate — oh how we can relate — to that poet sitting in a bar in 1939, “uncertain and afraid,” penning his nine-stanza lamentation.

Auden levels his indictment against his decade early, noting, “Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth, / Obsessing our private lives.” (Americans will resonate to the obsessing part.) In his second stanza, he supposes someday historians will paint a clearer picture of how Germany fell so low (“Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offense / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad”). But for now, he notes, he must bear the “rubbish” that dictators speak; he notes “the enlightenment driven away.” We today feel very far from the post-World War II era of enlightenment, security, peace.

But midpoint in his poem, Auden reverts to the bar and its denizens — his fellow human beings — and turns, if not hopeful, then prayerful: “Faces along the bar / Cling to their average day: / The lights must never go out, / The music must always play.”

But if Auden is prayerful about his fellow human beings, he also holds us to account. Harking seemingly to the opening of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” in which Dante midway through life loses his way and finds himself in “a forest dark,” Auden writes of us moderns, that we are: “Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.” It is flawed humanity, Auden is saying, that salutes and embraces a dictator (would that Republicans knew their Auden). He speaks also of “the error bred in the bone”: that “each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.” Universal peace? Not a chance if we don’t want it above all else.

But the poet cannot abandon all hope (unlike the commentators cited above). In his last two stanzas he declares himself — forcefully, even defiantly: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie.” I love that: “the folded lie,” the lie normalized from on high, repeated endlessly — a state of things Americans are now awash in, with Trump banging on endlessly about “fake” news, “hoax” investigations and impeachment — so much so that Truth loses its grounding (and its proper Capital letter). Auden is emphasizing that it is the lie, and the lying — the dishonesty — that we must fight, and fight ceaselessly. He points to “the Just” — people of character who are, properly, Capitalized — and, closing, says: “May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.”

Along the way to the climax, Auden famously exhorts us: “We must love one another or die.” Auden also famously disavowed that line, later, as sentimental, even (his poem’s indictment echoing in his mind) “dishonest.” But, to “show an affirming flame” here, let us retrieve that line from Auden’s outtakes and dust it off for its essential truth: Because, really, we must love one another or die.

The poet of course should have the last word, no more exegesis. Here is the poem in full, offered as guide out of our present “haunted wood” and “low dishonest decade.”

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

W.H. Auden (1907–1973)

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 odor 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;

Analyzed 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 a 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 deaf,

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.

Written by

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store