8: Spreadability – WH Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

Headlines from September 1, 1939--invasion of Poland and beginning of World War II.

When I read Why Media Spreads, I thought of a particular example of spreadability that I learned about during a project in History of the Book last year. I did a hypertext site on WH Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” This poem, although published in October of 1939, spread widely after 9/11—it was passed through email chains, left in copy machines, and read on NPR. It’s one of Auden’s most loved poems.

But all of this happened despite his best efforts to obliterate the poem’s existence. Auden hated the poem—he felt it to be untrue and revised it several times before refusing to allow publishers to include it in collections of his work (it appears in one 1964 collection, with the requirement that the editor include a note that says “Mr. Auden considers these poems [“September 1, 1939” and several others] trash that he is ashamed to have written”).

But even so, it’s been popular. This reminds me of the quote that Taj and others have referenced in their posts—Jenkins et all says that spreadability is “the potential – both technical and cultural – for audiences to share content for their own purposes, sometimes with the permissions of rights holders, sometimes against their wishes” (3). The poem is under copyright (fairly closely kept copyright, too—there are a number of Auden’s poems impossible to find online, although this is not one of them). It was spread against the wishes of the poet, and has been used for the audience’s own purposes— the line that Auden hated most was possibly referenced in the famous Daisy campaign ad (“we must love one another or die”). Although it was written about the invasion of Poland and outbreak of World War II, it was used by some in an effort to spread comfort to others after 9/11.

(the Lydon B. Johnson campaign ad uses the line “we must love one another or die”, Auden’s most hated line in the poem–if, for some reason, you have a burning desire to know more, you can find further information here)


This poem had the potential to be spreadable after 9/11 because of the closeness of the dates, the helplessness embedded in it, and the ending message of hope—it was a means of offering comfort. It also had the potential to be spreadable because of the possibility of reading excerpts and maintaining the message (as NPR and  some newspapers did) and because it was available online and there were technologies to share it. They used email or fax, but when my sister wanted to share it after the 2016 election, she tweeted a link, which I found to be an interesting example of the various forms of circulation.

As Molly, Vivian, and others have mentioned, the circulation of the poem speaks to a “bottom up” method—it has been spread by people against the wishes of the author, and is available widely online even though it’s copyrighted. Rather than the relative inaccessibility of works that appear only in print in university libraries—“stickiness” in the extreme—poetry that is available online can take on various audiences and be used for a variety of purposes.

Word  count: 497

Jenkins, Henry, et. al. “Why Media Spreads.” Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2018.