September 1, 1939

Author

Auden, W. H.

Genre

Poetry

Overview

W. H. Auden was one of the literary giants of the twentieth century. His poems, plays, and essays, written in everyday language, are full of his favorite themes: religion, politics, and psychology. "September 1, 1939," written in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, became eerily relevant to many after the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The poem’s Manhattan setting, images of death and destruction, and sense of the cyclical nature of evil ("Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return") all seemed directly applicable to this new tragedy. Auden’s poem invites us to ponder what we desire and whether, in the face of tragedy, our "clever hopes expire" or whether it is still possible to "Show an affirming flame."

Full Text*

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Source

W.H. Auden: Selected Poems, W. H. Auden (Vintage International, 1990)

Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Citizenship and DemocracyCrisis and ConflictLove and CompassionSocial and Political Change

Big Questions

What is democracy? What does it look like in action?What makes a "good" citizen?How should we respond to crisis?What constitutes a crisis? Is a natural disaster a crisis? Is poverty a crisis?How do we define love? How do we show love?How does a person learn compassion?Can one person change the world?What is change? Do people experience change differently?What kind of change am I making? What kind of change does the world need?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. How does the speaker talk about democracy? What does the speaker say about community?
  2. What do you make of the line, “All I have is a voice”?
  3. What do you think of the closing line, "Show an affirming flame"? What form(s) might this take?
  4. How should we individually respond to crisis? How should our community as a whole respond to crisis?
  5. In what ways is this poem relevant to political life today?
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