Literary Criticism as Autobiography A new exhaustive interpretation of the great Auden poem that is more the ways we can talk about a poem than about the poem itself.

September 1, 1939

By Ian Sansom (2020, Harper Perennial) 352 pages, including bibliography

Ian Sansom, a British mystery novelist and critic, has spent over twenty-five years obsessed with W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.” Auden’s poem—perhaps most famous for its line “We must love one another or die”—is often circulated in times of national crisis. The book jacket tells us as much. While Sansom’s September 1, 1939 professes to be a biography of Auden’s poem, the result borne out by the actual structure of Sansom’s text and the nature of its many self-reflective digressions complicates that goal.

The book works hard to foreground Auden’s poem. Each chapter begins with a page that isolates a stanza of the poem; the chapter then examines the given stanza from different angles: cultural criticism, literary close reading, investigative biography, and memoir. Sansom might point out biographical markers of where Auden was in his life and in his thinking not only at the time of writing but at later periods, and muse about the difference; he might point out what was true more broadly in Auden’s time and compare it to our time; more often than not he will riff associatively on his own memories as a student, reader, husband, father, writer, and worker, blending his research that exposes more of Auden’s relationships, personal life, work habits, and estimation in the eyes of his peers. Sansom will include anything from the cruising pick-up spot Auden frequented at 52nd Street in Manhattan to cracks that Sansom’s family members make about his obsession with Auden. (230) Sansom’s responses to each stanza are almost impossibly wide.

Auden’s poem—perhaps most famous for its line “We must love one another or die”—is often circulated in times of national crisis.

For the most part, Sansom has an ease in moving so widely. Sansom’s signal maneuvers are to use asterisks between sections within a chapter and to insert asides, of varying degrees of relevance, between parentheses. From these two maneuvers a structural integrity is kept and an authorial freedom is made; Sansom moves swiftly among otherwise disparate thoughts and associations. After beginning one chapter by pointing out that “this is a stanza that concerns itself with various kinds of rubbish: trash, excess, unmet needs and bad ideas,” (221) Sansom launches into a long aside in parentheses about Walter Benjamin, a memory of when he first learned about Benjamin as a student and Benjamin’s trash-oriented collecting enterprise The Arcades Project: “I’d like to say that Benjamin’s example is a model for this work, but his is a model I cannot possibly hope to follow; this book [is] not so much an Arcades Project as an Auden minimart or corner shop.” (222) Sansom goes on to include choice words from Benjamin about “one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it” which is that “ragpicker and poet” are “both are concerned with refuse.” We are made to understand that this poetic method has something in common with Sansom himself as well as with Auden and perhaps with all writing; two pages later, Sansom’s citation of Benjamin’s meditation on trash gives way to how “Kafka in his diaries remarks that ‘writers speak a stench;’ and Freud himself, writing to Wilhelm Fliess in 1899 about The Interpretation of Dreams, claimed that ‘no other work of mine has been so completely my own, my own dung heap!” (225) Leaving behind these frames of references, Sansom introduces a Derek Mahon poem that itself borrows from Pasolini (‘in the refuse of the world a new world is born’) and from there we get shown a long quotation from Michael Thompson’s text Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Then comes gossip: in response to Thompson’s quotation, Sansom tells us about an incident—again in parentheses—about this one time when the Stravinskys went to dinner with Auden and his life partner and “in the bathroom, Vera Stravinsky found a bowl of brown fluid, which she emptied into the sink—only to discover that she had flushed away Chester’s pudding.” (227) Sansom quips that “The boundary between what’s waste and what’s not can sometimes be difficult to discern.” (227) This wide range of reference in a short span of two pages is characteristic of the brimming through-line that Sansom makes in each chapter.

Sansom is no leading Auden scholar but an interested, unusually devoted reader.

While the structure of the book thus affords ample space to digress, clearly, some digressions felt more meaningful than others. For example, the digressions feel meaningful in the sequence about trash that I just cited—I do not learn anything per se about Auden’s use of trash in his poem but I do understand in a marvelously indirect way something about the range of associations I can experience in a poem, how a close looking at a small part of a piece of art can unearth a seemingly infinite range of occasions for meditations. From my own memory to a far-flung factoid: all of it applies to what passes through a devoted reader’s mind. That a reader can think such thoughts and connect them based on association is not revelatory news, but the concatenating of references is briskly made.

Sansom’s less meaningful digressions happen surprisingly often, however. For example, after giving a cogent gloss on what two critics have to say about Auden, Sansom ends one chapter by pointing out that “Basically, everything Fuller and Mendelson can do and have done, I cannot. If this book has an apologetic tone, then there is—as I hope you can now appreciate—a very good reason. Two very good reasons.” (126) Sansom issues this sort of qualification to make clear his relationship with his materials and to set expectations for a reader, which is fine: Sansom is no leading Auden scholar but an interested, unusually devoted reader. But then a whole paragraph follows this qualification, where Sansom muses about what it feels like to be writing about Auden: “Writing about Auden after Fuller and Mendelson is like playing tennis after Federrer and Nadal. (I would like to think that I might be an Andy Murray, but I am definitely not at the level of an Andy Murray…).” The paragraph continues with other possible points of comparison: “A Tim Henman, then? Alas, no I’m not even a Tim Henman. An umpire perhaps? An unseeded pro?” Even more words follow along these lines before he ends the chapter pithily with the following: “Anyway, if you want to know the meaning of Auden’s ‘Accurate scholarship,’ you can find the answers in Mendelson and Fuller (It’s to do with German reparations and various psychoanalytic subjects.)” (126) This kind of apologetic off-handedness works best in small doses. Far too often, Sansom gives into the ease of the gesture, the way it would seem to draw the reader closer.

This tendency to digress, apologize, attempt to entertain speaks to the book’s occasional uncertainty not only about who its audience is but what that audience knows or cares about. For instance, in one chapter about the eighth stanza, Sansom will focus on the poem itself: “this stanza seems to me to date the poem rather; it’s maybe because the idea of commuters pouring into the city in the early morning seems so Eliot-y and early twentieth-century” but then move out to point out that “the many changes in our living and working habits over the past eighty years are the consequence of all sorts of factors (globalisation, the rise of the corporation, the growth in mechanised production, the expansion of the service sector compared to the relative decline of manufacturing, the development of network computers–you don’t need me to tell you this stuff)…” And Sansom’s right. We do not. Again, these kinds of asides do not tell us about the poem itself or directly develop the larger theme of what it means to be a reader. Some readers may find this movement to a lighter tone charming or helpful in keeping the pages turning. And it is a book that moves quickly for its 304 pages, partially because of the use of asterisks and small paragraphs. At one point, Sansom says, “This is starting to sound like pub talk.” (218) The constant flirtation with a chatty, apologetic quality seems an intentional choice on Sansom’s part in order to differentiate this book from the heavier scholarly tomes that Sansom tells us he has studied and consulted for many years as part of his interest in Auden.

But if I complain about what to me seems like a type of recurring unevenness in the text, Sansom’s beaten me to the punch. Sansom’s deep dives into each stanza allow him to focus on the parts of the poem he does not like, and he contextualizes and meditates on his dislike in a way that reframes what success is and looks like over a long period of time. In response to the lines by Auden that ask “Who can release them now, / Who can reach the deaf, / Who can speak for the dumb?” Sansom writes that “These are perhaps my least favourite lines in my least favourite stanza in the whole poem” since “they seem to me banal, deficient, and silly.” (251) Sansom goes on to add that “From where I’m standing, from my perspective, it’s rather good if the poem takes a bit of a dive. If I’ve learnt anything reading Auden, it’s how wearying unceasing brilliance can be, so much so that one cherishes any sign of weakness.” (251) Rather than resting here, Sansom uses the asterisk and slides into one of his by-now signature parenthetical asides. This one, about another recent reading experience, turns out to be central: reading Death in Venice “in the car, outside the school, waiting to pick up the children, on an unreasonably warm afternoon, … I am suddenly struck by a thought” that “[my] frustration” with “the many purple passages” in the Mann text is misleading: “the book would be nothing without them, or less than it is. The imperfections … constitute the effect of reading the whole. In fact, they almost justify the rest.” (252) Sansom’s reversal of his own thinking arises in the way he lives, moving among multiple texts, spending time away and in them.

Sansom’s deep dives into each stanza allow him to focus on the parts of the poem he does not like, and he contextualizes and meditates on his dislike in a way that reframes what success is and looks like over a long period of time.

Such moments by Sansom are powerful in part because they occur in a mood of relaxation, of detaching from worrying about pleasing us as readers or anxiety about his own authority as a writer about Auden. When this detaching happens at the same time that he releases himself into his own knowledge and experience as a devoted reader, a kind of magic happens in the prose. In the chapter that focuses on the ninth stanza of the poem, where Auden’s speaker intones that “Defenceless under the night / Our world in stupor lie” and that “ironic points of light / Flashes out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages,” Sansom finds his footing:


[Auden] was, it has to be said, always rather prone to this sort of thing- the big summing-up, th’angelic choir rejoicing, the great glittering generalities. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what he did with the line ‘We must love one another or die,’ because in the end the whole poem swells to become a sort of secular sermon. It’s all a bit too much.


This paragraph charms readers with its deliberate aging of diction (“th’ angelic choir,”) its alliterative flourishes (“great glittering generalities”), its presentation of mixed feelings ( a series of noun phrases that indulge a bit in their sound, followed by the sharp colloquial declarative: “It’s all a bit too much”). Sansom follows this paragraph with a paragraph in parentheses that gives us George Orwell’s opinion on early Auden, an anecdote about Auden and a thank-you letter Auden wrote to Marianne Moore. This stuffing of fact risks becomes a bit much, too, but it is thrilling to be in the presence of a writer who has let himself be absorbed by minutia. Sansom writes that “One might, if one were so inclined, trace a history of twinkliness in Auden’s work, which finds its fullest expression here in the image of the ironic points of light flashing out messages from the Just” which then takes him into Auden’s “very first surviving, poem, written in 1922, aged just fifteen” that bears evidence of this “twinkliness” that later found its structure in “September 1, 1939.”

Sansom comes closest to having written a sublime book, and does so often, when he stays in the present tense of his own excitement.

Suffice it to say that the structure of September 1, 1939 affords a kind of ingenious spilling. Centuries ago the ancient writer Longinus asserted such spilling is crucial to creating sublimity in art. Sansom’s book falls a little under that achievement because of its flares of self-consciousness. Sansom comes closest to having written a sublime book, and does so often, when he stays in the present tense of his own excitement. The book seems to be less a biography of a poem and more a self-portrait of Sansom—which is not a bad thing, at all, just not exactly what the book cover and jacket and premise would have us think.