September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem

September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem
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This is a book about a poet, about a poem, about a city, and about a world at a point of change. More than a work of literary criticism or literary biography, it is a record of why and how we create and respond to great poetry. This is a book about a poet – W. H. Auden, a wunderkind, a victim-beneficiary of a literary cult of personality who became a scapegoat and a poet-expatriate largely excluded from British literary history because he left. About a poem – ‘September 1, 1939’, his most famous and celebrated, yet one which he tried to rewrite and disown and which has enjoyed – or been condemned – to a tragic and unexpected afterlife. About a city – New York, an island, an emblem of the Future, magnificent, provisional, seamy, and in 1939 about to emerge as the defining twentieth-century cosmopolis, the capital of the world. And about a world at a point of change – about 1939, and about our own Age of Anxiety, about the aftermath of September 11, when many American newspapers reprinted Auden’s poem in its entirety on their editorial pages.


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4th Estate

An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF

This eBook first published in Great Britain by 4th Estate in 2019

Copyright © Ian Sansom 2019

Ian Sansom asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

Unpublished writings by W. H. Auden are quoted with the permission of the Estate of W. H. Auden.

‘September 1, 1939’ from Another Time by W. H. Auden (1940, Faber & Faber).

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

Source ISBN: 9780007557219

Ebook Edition © July 2019 ISBN: 9780007557226

Version: 2019-08-02

For N. J. Humphrey



Title Page




6  Wow!

7  September 1, 1939

8 Your Least Favourite Auden Poem?

9  Just a Title

10  1

11  I ≠ A

12  The Modern Poet

13  Not Standing

14  A Not Insignificant Americanism

15  A Rolling Tomato Gathers No Mayonnaise

16  Clever-Clever

17  Various Cosmic Thingummys

18  Offensive Smells

19  2

20  A Little Spank-Spank

21  Strangeways

22  Is Berlin Very Wicked?

23  Do Not Tell Other Writers to F*** Off

24  3

25  The Latin for the Judgin’

26  4

27  Aerodynamics

28  Get Rid of the (Expletive) Braille

29  Tower of Babel Time

30  5

31  The Liquid Menu

32  Below Average

33  Soft Furnishings

34  6

35  Talking Trash

36  You Can’t Say ‘Mad’ Nijinsky

37  7

38  Homo Faber

39  8

40  As Our Great Poet Auden Said

41  We Must Die Anyway

42  9

43  Twinkling

44  A New Chapter in My Life

45  Twenty-Five Years’ Worth of Reading

46  Also by Ian Sansom

47  About the Author

48  About the Publisher

LandmarksCoverFrontmatterStart of ContentBackmatter

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At just after five o’clock on 11 June 1956, W. H. Auden stood up to give his inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry at the Sheldonian Theatre, the very heart of the university, adjacent to the Bodleian and the Clarendon Building, opposite Blackwell’s bookshop on Broad Street, and a short walk from Auden’s old college, Christ Church.

It was a warm afternoon. Auden, famously crumpled, had enjoyed, I imagine, a good lunch and was sweating in his thick black MA gown with its distinctive, gaudy crimson shot-silk hood. He was buzzing: he had long since adopted a strict chemical daily routine to enable him to work more efficiently. These ‘labor-saving devices’, in what he called his ‘mental kitchen’, included not only strategic quantities of alcohol, coffee and tobacco, but also the amphetamine Benzedrine, as a pick-me-up at breakfast, and the barbiturate Seconal, to bring him down at night. ‘If you ever get that depressed unable-to-concentrate feeling, try taking Benzidrine [sic] Tablets,’ he advised his friend Annie Dodds, ‘but not too many.’

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