At the source of the longest river / The voice of the hidden waterfall / And the children in the apple-tree / Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / between two waves of the sea.
TS ELIOT Four Quartets: Little Gidding

Hi! My name is Robert, aka The Solitary Walker, former editor of The Passionate Transitory, and this is
The Hidden Waterfall, my new site devoted to poetry discussion. We choose poems, we read them, we think about them, we discuss them. If you want to take part, please use the relevant comment box; all serious contributions are eagerly received. The lit-ernet is full of cursory summaries and shallow shorthand — so let's develop a deeper, more questioning, more intellectually satisfying approach to poetry appreciation. I'm thinking it would be good to feature rather-less-well-known 'difficult' poems, rather than popular 'easy' ones, but any ideas and suggestions about content are welcome. There is no pressure to join in, no time limit for responses. Whether you wish to contribute, or just read along, or aren't interested at all, that's fine. Participation should be for the fun of it, and out of a love of poetry and its greater understanding. I'll probably be posting a fresh poem every couple of weeks or so, but there are no hard and fast rules on this exploratory site. A little background reading about each poet and his/her life and work may be useful.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

4. 'September 1, 1939' by WH Auden

Auden famously rejected his poem 'September 1, 1939', but it has been persistently anthologised and is now widely considered to be one of his greatest poems. Slightly reminiscent of Yeats's 'Easter 1916', it is deceptively easy to read, but, like many of Auden's poems, contains subtleties and depths of meaning which may not be obvious at first sight. It was widely featured in the shocked aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on America, and, indeed, also resonates regarding the current political situation in Europe and the USA. Yet, despite its geographical and historical specificity, there is a more abstract and general nature to the poem, which gives it a lasting universality. Auden cleverly counterpoints both the public and the private, the collective and the individual, morality and immorality, despair and — in the end— hope. And, underlying the main political text, runs a personal subtext about Auden's homosexuality.

There are many things I like about this poem — for instance, the way Auden manages to convey a whole culture or historical period in just a few brushstrokes (eg  from 'Luther' to Hitler's home town of 'Linz' condenses 400 years of history; the name of the Greek historian 'Thucydides' evokes a revolutionary, evidence-based approach to historical study; the relation between 'Nijinsky' and 'Diaghilev' represents the outsider status of gay love and also its common bond with erotic, egotistical, jealousy-prone heterosexual passion; and so on).

Although the line 'We must love one another or die' has led to much sloganising, and was a line which finally embarrassed Auden, I find the last two stanzas quite moving. Reading them, I am reminded of Eleanor Roosevelt's quote 'It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness', and of Amnesty International's candle-in-barbed-wire logo, and of the samizdat messages of persecuted minorities, of oppressed writers and fighters for justice everywhere.

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.

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.      


  1. Thanks for your take on the poem, Robert. As with most of Auden's work, I think, rereading the poem usually reveals things missed the first time around.

  2. Oh to have the gift of taking jumbled thoughts and putting them into clean, tight, beautiful verse.

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this particular poem at this particular time.

  3. Thanks for reading, Laura, and I'm glad this poem affected you. Yes, what a gift Auden had.