Say This City Has Ten Million Souls by W.H. Auden | B.A English Notes

Say This City Has Ten Million Souls by W.H. Auden

Say This City Has Ten Million Souls

About the poet

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was a famous and distinguished Anglo-American poet. He was born in England and an American citizen. He is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Summary | Main idea of the Poem

In this poem, W.H Auden has given a graphic picture of immigrants. During the period of Second World War, the German Jews were persecuted by Hitler from Germany. They were forced to migrate to America. In America, the condition of the immigrants was very miserable.

Ten million people lived in America, The Americans had high and big buildings but there was no room for Jews. The Jews once had a country. They could not go back, because their passports had expired. They were living a very pitiable life in America.

Through the poem, W.H. Auden tries to convey the real situation and unfavorable circumstances that became the fate of Jews at the hand of Hitler. They were denounced by society, politically, and emotionally as well as their lives were costless and respectless.

In this poem, the poet is very sad at the inhuman behavior of the Americans with the Germans, Firstly, their Passports have expired. They are treated badly. They do not allow him to go back to his country. They Say that his passport is expired now. So it is dead.

Secondly, politicians and thinkers are against them. So the poet laments that animals can enjoy their lives freely, but human beings are under restriction. Human life falls beneath the animal level.No doubt, the politicians spoil human pleasures. They limit and restrict the activities of their rivals.

Man is imprisoned in a thousand shackles of race, nationality, passport, etc. These immigrants become the hunted and the wanted. The basic theme of this poem is based on the sad feelings of immigrants. They suffer many troubles and problems in a new country.

Although the poet has referred to the case of the Jews who migrated to America during World War II yet this can be applied to immigrants from any country of the world. The poet preaches a moral lesson with the help of this poem that is universal brotherhood to mankind.

The poet has used many images in this poem to describe the miserable condition of the Jews. These images are; ten million souls, mansions holes, passports, ten feet, thousand floors, thousand soldiers, etc.

These images create a sense of sympathy for the German Jews. The basic subject matter of the poem is based on humanitarian grounds. The poet has criticized the division of human beings in the world on political, geographical, and regional grounds.

So the poet wants to promote love, friendship, and good relationship among human beings at an international level. In this way, a friendless, helpless, and shelterless German Jew is the spokesman of the poet.

Reference to Context and Explanation

Lines 1-4

Say this city has ten million souls

Some are living in mansions some are living in holes:

Yet there’s no place for us, my dear,

Yet there’s no place for us.


These lines have been taken from the poem Say this city has ten million Souls

written by W.H. Auden.


In this poem, the poet describes the miserable condition of the German Jews. They fled to America to take political shelter. They were driven out to Germany and Europe by Hitter. They were maltreated in the new country.

They suffered from a sense of isolation and deprivation. They were treated everywhere as an unwanted burden. They were not allowed to move, live or speak, as they liked.


In these lines, the poet has expressed the hopelessness of the German Jews. They migrated to America during the Second World War, The poet expresses his thoughts and feelings through one Jewish refugee who wants to settle in America.

This representative refugee says that about ten million people lived in that American city. The rich lived in comfortable houses while the poor lived in very humble houses or holes. But this large city had no place to offer accommodation to the unfortunate refugees.

Lines 5-8

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look him the atlas and you’ll find it there,

We cannot go there now, my dear,

We cannot go there now.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee says that there was a time when they had a

beautiful country. It was Germany. If you look in the Atlas, you will find that country on the map of the world.

But it is a pity that they cannot go there now. They have been turned out of their own country and they are not allowed to enter it. So, they are driven from their country. Now they are without any home.

Lines 9-12

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,

Every spring it blossoms anew:

Old passports can’t do that, my dear,

Old passports can’t do that.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee expresses his helplessness in a foreign country. He says that even the old yew tree in the village graveyard grows new leaves and flowers every spring season.

It is renewed by nature each year. But their old passports cannot be renewed automatically. Since they do not belong to any country now. No office or government is ready to renew their passports.

Lines 13-16

The consul banged the table and said,

If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead

But we are still alive my dear,

But we ate still alive.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German Jew tells us about the hostile behavior of the government officers towards them. The passport officer of the Embassy struck his hands on the table and announced that without valid passports, the refugees will be considered dead.

In order to prove their presence they will have to produce new passports. It was sad and ridiculous to refuse the existence of a person alive and present before them. It shows that documents were more important than human beings.

Lines 17-20

Went to a committee- they offered me a chair,

Asked me politely to return next year

But where shall we go today, my dear,

But where shall we go today?

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee describes the indifference of the government officers towards their problems. He says that he went to a committee that was made to solve the problems of homeless refugees. The committee treated him politely and offered him a chair to sit on.

When they heard his story, they advised him to see them next year. They did not do anything to solve their immediate problems. He asks them, where they should go and live for a year. The committee did not try to help them sincerely and only promised to do so in the future.

Lines 21-24

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:

‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’

He was talking of you and me, my dear,

He was talking of you and me.

Reference and Context

Same as for the lines 1-4


In these lines the German refugee says that all political leaders were against them. He says that he attended a public meeting in which the speaker refuses to accept refugees in his country.

He said that if they were allowed to live there, they would snatch daily bread from the local public. The speaker was referring to the German refugees who wished to that country.

Lines 25-28

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;

It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die;

O we were in his mind, my dear,

O we were in his mind.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee has expressed the hatred and revenge of Hitler against the Jews. He says that he heard some thundering noise in the sky.

But it was Hitler’s voice declaring to take revenge on them. Hitler told the whole of Europe that Jews must be killed wherever they were found. His mind was occupied by this idea and he did everything to ruin them.

Lines 29-32

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,

Saw a door opened and a cat let in:

But they weren’t German Jews, my dear,

But they weren’t German Jews.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the banished  Jew laments at his miserable and poor life in America. He tells us that Americans love their animals more than human beings. They are more kind and more loving to pet dogs and cats than to human beings.

He tells us that he saw a poodle dog with a beautiful jacket tied to his body. He was grieved to see a door being opened to let in a cat, while he was refused shelter though he was a human being.

He thinks that animals are treated in a better way because they are not German Jews. The American people showed more affection and regard to animals than poor German refugees, It shows their contempt and cold behavior towards the German Jews.

Lines 33-36

Went down the harbor and stood upon the quay

Saw the fish swimming as if they were free.

Only ten feet away, my dear,

Only ten feet away.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee describes his limitations of movement. He went to the seaport and saw the fish swimming freely in the sea. Only ten feet away the fish were free to swim, as they liked.

But the German Jews were not free to move into the city or country according to their own will. Their movements and activities were restricted. It was strange that sea animals were free to move but human beings were deprived of their freedom.

Lines 37-40

Walked through a wood saw the birds in the trees;

They had no politicians and sang at their ease:

They weren’t the human race my dear,

They weren’t the human race.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee has expressed his views about politics in human society. He says that he passed through a forest and saw there birds were singing happily in the trees.

The cause of their happiness and satisfaction was the absence of politicians among birds. Our politicians have divided mankind into groups, races, nations, and countries.

They have put many conditions and restrictions on the movement of people from one country to another. The German refugees were also facing troubles caused by the politicians. The politicians proposed such restrictions in the name of public interest.

Lines 41-44

Dreamed 1 saw a building with a thousand floors

A thousand windows and a thousand doors,

Not one of them was ours, my dear,

Not one of them ours.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee expresses his desire to get a place where they

could all live comfortably. He saw a huge building in his dream. It had a thousand stories with countless doors and houses. He expresses sorrow that this grand building could not provide a single house to the homeless German Jews.

They needed a house badly but none of them was meant for them. They were not given a chance to live honorably. It means that the city is big enough but the authorities are not willing to help the refugees.

Lines 45-48

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;

Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:

Looking for you and me, my dear,

Looking for you and me.

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the German refugee describes the general attitude of the rulers as well as the public. He says that he saw ten thousand soldiers being trained on a large ground in the falling snow. He says that these soldiers are being prepared to hunt and kill the German Jews anywhere in the world.

Particularly the Government is sending soldiers everywhere to find and kill the Jews. They were being chased and tortured in an organized way. During Second World War the German forces drove them out mercilessly.

Important Questions & Their Answers

Question 1

Narrate the central idea of the poem Say this City has Tem Million Souls by W.H. Auden.

What is the basic theme of the poem?


The poet presents a serious theme in the poem. He presents a man’s misbehaving with a man based on political, religious, national, and racial grounds. The poem is about the German Jews who migrated to the U.S.A for the fear of Hitler’s cruel treatment.

The message of love for all human beings is beautifully conveyed through the mouth of an immigrant. The description of the friendless, helpless, and shelterless immigrant arouses feelings of sympathy in the reader’s mind. The tone of the poem is pathetic, tragic, and ironic.

Fish and birds are free but human beings are not. They are bound in a thousand chains of race, religion, country, nationality, and passports. The poet produces a soft corner for the Jews by using numerical images in the poem.

Question 2

Why is the refugee In Say this city has ten million souls declared officially dead while he is actually alive?

Bring out the pathos in Say this city has ten million souls.

Say this city has ten million Souls” expresses the sad feelings of refugees. Discuss?


W.H. Auden was born in England but settled in America. In his poems, he has described the international problems of refugees, It is an outcome of political, religious, and racial discrimination. In this poem, Auden has described the scenario of refugees’ alienation coming to a country not their own.

He is especially talking about the German Jews who fled from their country for the fear of Hitler. The feelings which are expressed here can be shared by any refugee and immigrant living anywhere in the world. The so-called civilized societies. treat them mercilessly and inhumanly.

Human life and its honor fall beneath the animal level. Human beings are captured and imprisoned in countless chains of religion, race, nationality, and passport. W.H.Auden condemns that mankind is divided into selfishness and narrow-mindedness.

He believes that we should remove these barriers and accept the rights of refugees to live. The poem is sentimental in impact. The poem preaches a moral lesson of universal brotherhood to all the nations of the world. It arouses feelings of sympathy and pity for the refugees.

Question 3

What is the thematic significance of images used in the poem, Say This City Has Ten Million souls?


In the poem, Say This City Has Ten Million Souls, the poet, W.H. Auden has used pictorial images carefully to signify the misery, difficulties, and sufferings of the war-torn and neglected people.

This poem has been written when there was the Second World War and the Nazi forces launched an operation against the Jews. The period of the 20th century was the darkest period in history for all the Jewish race as these years led them to near extinction.

The poet, W.H. Auden, was also a Jew who has presented a realistic picture of those dark days when the Jews were being maltreated and dislocated on a massive scale. The poet has painted images of free birds that show the imprisoned condition of the Jews in their own country.

The images of freely moving fish also describe the same situation that paints the pathetic condition of the Jews, the whole poem is about the German Jews who migrated to the U.S.A. for the fear of Hitler’s cruel treatment.

The symbols of passports, the military marches, the multi-storeyed building, the symbolic importance of thunder, the harbour, the churchyard, the yew tree, and the mansions, all signify the destitute and miserable condition of the Jews in Europe.

The poet has satirized the racial prejudice of the world leaders who are destroying global peace by a pre-planned war against the Jews. The poet stresses on this thing that equality gives peace whereas difference gives rise -to hatred.

About the Author

Anila Ibrahim

An educationist, web content writer, equipped with an LLB and a Master’s degree in English Literature, as well as a Master of Philosophy in Entrepreneurship. I have a comprehensive understanding of both the English language and the educational landscape. This academic background empowers Anila to deliver content that is not only informative but also thoroughly researched.

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