People for Peace, Justice, and Healing

September 1, 1939

       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 odour 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;
       Analysed 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 the 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 an 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.

       Defenceless 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.

              -- W.H. Auden (1940)

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Last updated: February 9, 2003