Sunday, May 26, 2013

September 1, 1939--Poem by W H Auden

Human civilization across time and space has seen mass violence on various scales that have left indelible imprint on the way we think and act now. The poem September 1, 1939, written by the celebrated poet Anglo-American poet W H Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973)), on the occasion of the outbreak of World War II with the invasion of Poland by Hitler’s German army causing unprecedented violence and mass murders, is one to which thinking people have turned to take ‘lessons’, to grope for sanity in a civilized society. It was first published in The New Republic issue of 18 October 1939, and was first published in book form in Auden's collection Another Time (1940).  Among other things, the juxtaposition of individual frustrations and failures of 'psychopathic god' (read Hitler or Hitler-like figures) with those on the social plane causing untold misery to humanity is something very striking--even though one of the last lines 'We must love one another or die' seems a too romantic and simple resolution of such a complex juxtaposition. It may be instructing to go back to the poem once again in our times.--KV
September 1, 1939
photo courtesy:

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,
Find 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 agai

Into this neutral air
Where 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;
  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?

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.

WH Auden

Friday, May 24, 2013

Life is a Spiral; It's Ends Never Meet

Here I am reproducing my Edit Page article in 'The Speaking Tree' column of Times of India published some years ago and available on their website:

The Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus the King, ends with the chorus saying: "Count no man happy till he dies". After having been an involved spectator of the tragic life of Oedipus, a man in conflict with himself and his destiny, the chorus, representing common men and women of Athens 500 years before Christ, comes out with, as it were, a verdict on man's ambiguous destiny and articulates these words of wisdom as borne out of the trials and tribulations of the protagonist. The idea is to make us realise that tragedy, whether personal or social, ennobles the man, chastens him, makes him accept reality and in the process makes him better.

However, equally true is the fact that the elements of caution, fear and seriousness that such wisdom necessarily carries, go against the restless and inquisitive spirit of man. Rather, there seems to be a continuous struggle between the wisdom, which is essentially pessimistic and debilitating, trying to ground the individual to reality and his urge to create new realities. This leads us to the other side of experience where tragedy is not an ennobling but an embittering experience. It instructive to note that in the western dramatic tradition, the idea of tragedy having an ennobling impact on man is generally put forth through ploys like the chorus or chorus-like characters representing the viewpoint of laymen.

But the protagonist himself, who acts out his conflicts and meets a tragic end, generally remains embittered at his fall. The artist who creates such a character and plot, despite all the moral undertones at the end, is usually 'suspected' to be on the side of the tragic hero, even though his character's choices do not conform to social norms. As a result, we find two kinds of responses that tragedy offers. First to take the experience as a grim reminder of 'the special providence in the fall of a.sparrow', to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, and thus to remain in awe of unknown forces working against man and his purposes.

Or to consider the experience as a result of personal imperfection that can be corrected in all probability The first choice has a practical completeness about it, while the second emanates from a mind agitated and resentful at its incomplete endeavours. But is a man's insistence on endeavouring to 'prevail' over his destiny likely to end in the repeat of tragedy only? On the face of it, this appears to be an open and shut case, but perhaps it is not so. Because though history appears to repeat.and move in a circular fashion, in reality the circle is never complete and events actually take the form of a spiral movement, where ends do not meet.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


In the previous post on my brother, I mentioned about my brother’s love for Ogden Nash. As I reflect more, I remember books like ‘Pocket Book of Ogden Nash by Ogden Nash’, Selected Poetry of Ogden Nash’ etc.  In this post I reproduce a few of his eminently fun poems with the following introductory lines taken from Wikipedia: “Frederic Ogden Nash (August 19, 1902 – May 19, 1971) was an American poet well known for his light verse. At the time of his death in 1971, the New York Times said his "droll verse with its unconventional rhymes made him the country's best-known producer of humorous poetry". Ogden Nash wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse. The best of his work was published in 14 volumes between 1931 and 1972.”

A Word to Husbands

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.

The Octopus

Photo courtesy:
Ethan Daniels/Getty Images
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

Lines On Facing Forty

I have a bone to pick with Fate.
Come here and tell me, girlie,
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotted early?

Read more of his poems at
from where these poems have been sourced