This is an extract from W H Auden’s journal for 1939. The diary, which contains entries written between August and November of that year, was written at a particularly crucial time in his life. Together with his friend Christopher Isherwood, he had left Britain for the United States in the winter of 1939. Their decision to move to America was criticised by some of their contemporaries, who claimed Auden and Isherwood were deserting their country as the threat of a new world war approached. Auden had also fallen in love with the American poet Chester Kallman, whom he had met in April of that year, and this contributed to his decision to stay in America. But despite the happiness he derived from his relationship with Kallman, the journal also shows his growing anxiety about Britain’s involvement in the war.
‘September 1, 1939’
The journal is an illuminating companion to one of Auden’s best-known poems, ‘September 1, 1939’, a poem written on, and named after, the day on which the Second World War began. In this poem, he famously describes the 1930s as ‘a low dishonest decade’. The journal entry corresponding to 1 September begins with the suggestion of a bad omen: ‘Woke with a headache after a night of bad dreams in which C [Chester Kallman] was unfaithful. Paper reports German attack to Poland’. In the afternoon of the same day, Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears visited Auden. But despite the presence of his friends, in his notes there is a feeling of uneasiness at being in America while war developed in Europe: ‘Now I sit looking out over the river. Such a beautiful evening, and in an hour they say England will be at war’.