Friday, September 01, 2006

September 1, 1939

Today is the sixty seventh anniversary of the start of World War II. I've always found the poem by W.H. Auden, written in memory of that fateful day, to be quite moving.
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.
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.

Defenseless 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.
[Full text]

1 comment:

assiniboine said...

Actually it was 3 September 1939 that Britain and France declared war on Germany; it invaded Poland on 1 September and that was the casus belli but not the beginning of the war: it had, after all, previously occupied Austria and the Sudetenland without let or hindrance.

However, there are other relevant dates: Canada deliberately dragged its heels for two days in following suit, as a cosmetic expression of sovereignty (cute); the USA of course did not enter the war until after Pearl Harbour; and the Chinese would legitimately say that the War began when Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, but perhaps more obviously in 1937 when the second Sino-Japanese War began.

Sorry. Issues long since papered over, obviously — old Canadian soldiers bring them up when issues are raised about Canada enthusiastically buying into the reconstruction of Afghanistan but being equivocal about President Bush's campaign in Iraq.

But I recommend Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (ISBN 0-465-06835-9) [how does one italicise in this medium?]. She makes the fascinating point that were it not for the Rev'd John Gillespie Magee Snr, a sometime curate at St John's Lafayette Square in Washington (whose Royal Canadian Air Force son JGM Jnr is remembered for his poem "High Flight"*, returned to currency when Peggy Noonan inserted a quotation from it in President Reagan's remarks on the Challenger), who was an American Episcopalian missionary in Nanking and who recorded the atrocities, the Rape of Nanking would never have come to notice in the West.

While I am as enthusiastic an admirer of W.H. Auden as the next guy, though, I am always mildly perplexed at this poem being quoted in commemoration of the beginning of WWII when old Wystan was at the time hiding out in the USA from the danger of being called up.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

(John Gillespie Magee was very shortly after writing this famous poem shot down and killed — as indeed was John Macrae killed shortly after writing the other standard of 20th century war, "In Flanders Fields," during WWI. I like I'm sure most Canadians when it comes to their attention, was astonished to learn that Magee was in fact an American in the Royal Canadian Air Force and not a Canadian. There is an interesting graduate thesis to be written on the history of American participation in the War during the two years before the USA entered it.)