Biography of a Poem: W H Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

The Times has a review of a new book by Ian Sansom in its “Book of the Week” column. This is a “biography” of W H Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” soon to celebrate its 80th birthday. The review by James Marriott describes the book as:

… the 20th century’s greatest political poem, and I sometimes wonder if it might not be its greatest poem full stop. Written days after the Second World War broke out (September 1 was the date of the Nazi invasion of Poland), it begins, famously, with the poet sitting “in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street” and opens out into a panoramic survey of a “low dishonest decade” and a culture on the brink of destruction: from Thucydides, to Hitler, to crowds of “dense commuters” emerging from dark subways, to the “blind” New York skyscrapers that “proclaim/ The strength of Collective Man”.

The review also has a summarized history of both Auden and the poem. This includes an interlude that attracted Waugh’s attention:

In 1939 there was political and romantic change. Auden sailed to America with Isherwood, his friend and sometimes lover. […] In New York he met 18-year-old Chester Kallman, “slender [with] gray-blue eyes, pale flawless skin, a Norse skull, Latin lips and straight narrow nose”. He was the love of Auden’s life.

The review closes  with this:

There’s lots to love about Auden: a generous, eccentric, shambling genius. I could read trivia about him all day. I wish there was rather more of it in Sansom’s rambling book, which combines impressive gleams of insight and anecdote with baffling digressions into the Burj Khalifa, an Ed Sheeran concert and the author’s working habits. Some will be frustrated, others charmed. It’s a style that might have appealed to Auden, who once turned an attempt to review a biography of Evelyn Waugh into a rant about overpopulation. That creased face would find a sympathetic smile for his discursive disciple.

It’s hard to know what “biography” of Waugh that Auden was attempting to review. He died in 1973 and the first comprehensive biography was that by Christopher Sykes published in 1975. The reference is more likely to Auden’s review (“As it Seemed to Us”, New Yorker, 3 April 1965, pp. 157-92) of Waugh’s autobiography A Little Learning. This is collected in Auden’s Complete Works (Volume 5, p. 134). See previous post. Auden also compared his own biographical details with those of Waugh as well as Leonard Woolf, a volume of whose autobiography was also reviewed, and overpopulation may also have been touched on in what out turned to be a 35-page New Yorker article.

The move to America was parodied by Waugh in Put Out More Flags with the characters Parsnip and Pimpernell: one was Auden and the other Isherwood. They later reappeared in Love Among the Ruins. Waugh actually met Auden for the first time on his visit to New York in 1948. This was at a reception in the apartment of Ann Fremantle. He wrote to his wife that he rather liked Auden.

UPDATE (10 August 2019): Additional details regarding Auden’s review of A Little Learning and the minor corrections were added.

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