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Alan Jacobs

Shame the Devil

In the wake of September 11, everyone was quoting W.H Auden's September 1, 1939. But Auden himself repudiated the poem's most famous lines.

In Shakespeare's first Henry IV play, one of the rebels against the king, a Welshman named Owen Glendower, lays claim to marvelous magical powers and supernatural gifts. His powers have been testified to from his conception; he is both a prophet and the object of prophecy. He begins by telling an assemblage of rebel leaders of the dramatic signs in the heavens that heralded his nativity:

… at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark'd me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Where is he living, clipp'd in with the sea
That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?
And bring him out that is but woman's son
Can trace me in the tedious ways of art
And hold me pace in deep experiments.

With these boasts young Harry Percy—Hotspur—has no patience. When Glendower resonantly proclaims, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," Hotspur replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?" When Glendower in turn replies, "Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil," Hotspur's final answer is decisive:

And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I'll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!

Hotspur's counsel to Glendower is my counsel to all of us. Let it be my text and my meditation.


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a particular poem came again and again to the public's attention—a poem by W. H. Auden called "September 1, 1939." On the Saturday after the attacks, Scott Simon read the poem aloud on National Public Radio; a friend of mine who teaches at the University of Virginia heard it declaimed at an interfaith ...

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