Celebration Sunday: Show An Affirming Flame

30 January 2017

Celebration Sunday Theme

-submitted by Julia Rossi

The theme of Celebration Sunday is ‘Show an Affirming Flame,’ the last line of a famous, albeit controversial, poem written by the famous poet, W. H. Auden in the throes of World War II. In an article written in the New York Times (shortly after September 11th), journalist Peter Steinfels asks “….would a contemporary version of the 1939 poem be found guilty of what has come to be labeled ''moral equivalence”? Was Auden shifting moral responsibility from totalitarian evildoers to past misdeeds by those under attack and to a universal human egotism in which everyone was more or less equally complicit?”

This poem was selected by Dylan Zwick, Chair of our Pledge Committee. Here are his thoughts:

Our theme for this year’s pledge drive, “Show an Affirming Flame”, comes from the final line of W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1st, 1939”. Written at the start of the Second World War, its title references the day Germany invaded Poland, and it became obvious and inevitable that, despite the horrors of their recent past, Europe and the world were to suffer war again. The poem is mostly a meditation and analysis upon the madness, both in human culture and the human psyche, that led to this disaster, but it ends with a pledge. The pledge is not a statement of uplift, but an affirmation of support for what is best within humanity, and a wish to stand with those who uphold it in the darkest times. We are now at the beginning of another version of madness in our own country. We have yet to see how far it will spread, and how much harm it will do, but we hope as a church and as a blessed community to show our own affirming flame within these times. I pledge as part of an effort, beleaguered by negation and despair though I may be, to do what I can within our congregation, our community, our country, and our world. I wish I could give and do more, but if we all give and do what we can, I believe we can fuel a powerful and beautiful chalice.


September 1, 1939

British Poet W. H. Auden

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 deaf,
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.

Defenceless 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.

Listen to this poem read by Dylan Thomas (he includes some stanzas not in this version of the poem): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ED4sN16x1ls