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

Carla Seaquist
6 min readJan 7, 2020

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, 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…

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Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.