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September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem

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This a book about a poet, about a poem, about a city, and about a world at a point of change. More than a work of literary criticism or literary biography, it is a record of why and how we create and respond to great poetry. This a book about a poet – W. H. Auden, a wunderkind, a victim-beneficiary of a literary cult of personality who became a scapegoat and a poet-expatria This a book about a poet, about a poem, about a city, and about a world at a point of change. More than a work of literary criticism or literary biography, it is a record of why and how we create and respond to great poetry. This a book about a poet – W. H. Auden, a wunderkind, a victim-beneficiary of a literary cult of personality who became a scapegoat and a poet-expatriate largely excluded from British literary history because he left. About a poem – ‘September 1, 1939’, his most famous and celebrated, yet one which he tried to rewrite and disown and which has enjoyed – or been condemned – to a tragic and unexpected afterlife. About a city – New York, an island, an emblem of the Future, magnificent, provisional, seamy, and in 1939 about to emerge as the defining twentieth-century cosmopolis, the capital of the world. And about a world at a point of change – about 1939, and about our own Age of Anxiety, about the aftermath of September 11, when many American newspapers reprinted Auden’s poem in its entirety on their editorial pages.


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This a book about a poet, about a poem, about a city, and about a world at a point of change. More than a work of literary criticism or literary biography, it is a record of why and how we create and respond to great poetry. This a book about a poet – W. H. Auden, a wunderkind, a victim-beneficiary of a literary cult of personality who became a scapegoat and a poet-expatria This a book about a poet, about a poem, about a city, and about a world at a point of change. More than a work of literary criticism or literary biography, it is a record of why and how we create and respond to great poetry. This a book about a poet – W. H. Auden, a wunderkind, a victim-beneficiary of a literary cult of personality who became a scapegoat and a poet-expatriate largely excluded from British literary history because he left. About a poem – ‘September 1, 1939’, his most famous and celebrated, yet one which he tried to rewrite and disown and which has enjoyed – or been condemned – to a tragic and unexpected afterlife. About a city – New York, an island, an emblem of the Future, magnificent, provisional, seamy, and in 1939 about to emerge as the defining twentieth-century cosmopolis, the capital of the world. And about a world at a point of change – about 1939, and about our own Age of Anxiety, about the aftermath of September 11, when many American newspapers reprinted Auden’s poem in its entirety on their editorial pages.

30 review for September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem

  1. 5 out of 5

    David James

    Ian Sansom tells us it took him 25 years to write this, longer than he’s been married. It’s certainly a labour of love, the bibliography reflecting the huge amount of reading and research. There’s no pretentiousness in his approach to Auden and his poetry, it’s straightforward easy to understand which is more than can be said of the poem itself. I loved it and was enlightened by it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Tom Collins

    Brilliant book. Reconnected me with Auden. This is more than a book about a poem. It’s a book about writers and writing and a passion for literature.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mizloo

    A very unusual book about the most famous poem by WH Auden; a poem the poet seems to have disdained, by an author who is perhaps best described as eccentric. There is a class of well-educated British men who, while making utterly self-effacing statements, manage to demonstrate a wide an deep familiarity with literature in the English language, among others. When they take pen in hand, the dry wit and acerbic commentary they produce tickles me immoderately. Ian Sansom has apparently written a good A very unusual book about the most famous poem by WH Auden; a poem the poet seems to have disdained, by an author who is perhaps best described as eccentric. There is a class of well-educated British men who, while making utterly self-effacing statements, manage to demonstrate a wide an deep familiarity with literature in the English language, among others. When they take pen in hand, the dry wit and acerbic commentary they produce tickles me immoderately. Ian Sansom has apparently written a good many books across the 25 years when, having started out to write a biography of Auden, he progressively narrowed his focus until he wrote this entertainingly erudite analysis of one work by Auden; the delight is in the asides that follow a word or phrase in the poem down a rabbit hole of literary and historical minutia. His frequent meandering on the literary and intellectual chasms that separate his efforts from Auden's, manages to include trenchant commentary on famous writers who fall into said chasms. I learned a lot, laughed out loud and came to dearly love Ian Sansom. And of course, also learned a great deal about a famous poem I had, quite honestly, never even heard of. win win win

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Well, this one took awhile to finish. (It took the author 25 years to write, so I feel okay with this.) This is the second biography of a poem I've read -- the first was about Frost's "The Road Not Taken." This one is much less biography and much more memoir, really, and a sort of literary diarrhea in which Sansom spews out everything his brain has ever pondered while reading a single poem of Auden's. This is fine. This is good. It's actually quite enjoyable -- Sansom has a self-deprecating humor Well, this one took awhile to finish. (It took the author 25 years to write, so I feel okay with this.) This is the second biography of a poem I've read -- the first was about Frost's "The Road Not Taken." This one is much less biography and much more memoir, really, and a sort of literary diarrhea in which Sansom spews out everything his brain has ever pondered while reading a single poem of Auden's. This is fine. This is good. It's actually quite enjoyable -- Sansom has a self-deprecating humor that, when juxtaposed to the high-falutin' literariness of the content, really shines -- so perhaps my choice of 'spew' and 'diarrhea' are a bit too harsh. But it's true -- there is just so much here that it's hard to process. You have to read slowly, because Sansom moves incredibly fast -- sometimes too fast, as I would have loved to have much more explication of that eighth stanza. My mind works like this, too -- it moves too fast and covers huge gaps from a single springboard -- so it's reassuring to see someone else do this, too. It's always good to know you're not alone.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    I suppose this is no less useful as a work of literary criticism than most and the author is certainly more amiable company, but the degree to which it is loaded with mere information make it a wearying read. Its research is a mile wide and an inch deep and Sansom is unwilling, to a perverse degree, to draw any conclusions or defend any point of view. I should be more sympathetic, since these are my own failings, but I still wish it had been shorter by about a third.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Marsha Valance

    "We must love one another or die" -- Ian Sansom's analysi of W. H. Auden's poem demonstrates Auden's significance for our own time. "We must love one another or die" -- Ian Sansom's analysi of W. H. Auden's poem demonstrates Auden's significance for our own time.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paul Doody

  8. 4 out of 5

    karen peck

  9. 4 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl

  10. 4 out of 5

    Darcy

  11. 4 out of 5

    Nina

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mizloo

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alistair Fitchett

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bruce

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jack Warren

  17. 4 out of 5

    Duncan M Simpson

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gosia

  19. 4 out of 5

    BiblioPhil

  20. 5 out of 5

    Peter Wild

  21. 5 out of 5

    Garth Johnson

  22. 4 out of 5

    Isobel Buckingham

  23. 4 out of 5

    Simon Freeman

  24. 4 out of 5

    Guy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Penny

  26. 4 out of 5

    Nicola Hall

  27. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mickay Miller

  30. 5 out of 5

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