New Decade

On the eve of this new decade I once again read W.H.Auden’s poem September 1, 1939 and was struck by his reference to being “uncertain and afraid as the clever hopes expire of a low dishonest decade.” What adjectives would we use, I wondered, to describe the decade just passing? I decided that “greedy and diverted” would describe it best.

Through the past decade we have seen increases in wealth, homelessness, violence, hate crimes and endless consumption, and we have participated in diversions and distractions that might take our mind off such things. But lately it has become more and more difficult to ignore what’s happening around us. Whether you’re looking at videos of the raging fires in Australia, or watching a mourning ceremony for the disappearing Pizol glacier in Switzerland, or attending a vigil on Gabriola Island to protest anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas sprayed on a Jewish summer camp, it’s difficult to escape from the shocking developments in our world, globally and locally. 

Elizabeth Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University says, “The science tells us that every gigaton we cut counts,” in avoiding a catastrophic future. I believe it is also true that every positive step we take to improve the lives of those around us counts in reducing hatred and violence.

Auden says, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return” and “We must love one another or die.” I think he’s right and the moment is critical. Let’s do what we can to “show an affirming flame.”

It’s a timely poem. Worth reading at the start of this decade. We need to look at what’s going on in the world and use clear-sighted 20/20 vision. And we need to be acting, rather than distracting. It’s time.

Auden’s poem is also timely. It’s worth reading.

September, 1939

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,
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 again.

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;
“I will 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?

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.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright


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