The Normal Heart

It’s now exactly 70 years since the start of World War Two, as it was on this date in 1939 that Germany invaded Poland. On hearing the news, WH Auden composed this poem. Although the poet himself grew to dislike it, it became one of his most famous poems and has many resonances still in today’s world.

September 1st, 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 dead,
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.

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.

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3 Responses to “The Normal Heart”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with Auden’s own opinion of his poem and wonder why he came to dislike it. For centuries aesthetes have rhapsodised over the glories of ancient Greece because of its higher culture, but it viewed war as the norm, often put out newborn girls to die and was based on slavery. Give me life, peace and freedom any day.

    Luther had his faults, some of which are writ large in the German national psyche; but was mediaeval Europe a paradise before he came? Moreover his principal aim was to get European churches back to the gospel, and the principal practical message of the gospel was to love your neighbour. It was denial of that message, not acceptance of it, that led his nation to start two world wars.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      I think Auden found it to be a bit smug and excessively flattering to himself. He often refused permission to have this poem included in anthologies, and when he agreed to have this one published with another four early poems of his, he sent them with a note saying:

      Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written

      An edition of this poem was published in 1955 with the most famous line changed at the poet’s request to “We must love one another and die.”

      Peter

  2. [...] I thought I’d re-post this poem by WH Auden which I put up about a year ago on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2. We’re in a different kind of struggle now, but his words are no less apt for that. It's now exactly 70 years since the start of World War Two, as it was on this date in 1939 that Germany invaded Poland. On hearing the news, WH Auden composed this poem. Although the poet himself grew to dislike it, it became one of his most famous poems and has many resonances still in today's world. September 1st, 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: Wav … Read More [...]

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