The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue by W.H. Auden, edited by Alan Jacobs

Princeton University Press, pp.200, 15.95

Auden said: ‘The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow-poets.

Auden said: ‘The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow-poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow poets. This means, in fact, he writes for his fellow poets.’ Certainly Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, which was first published in 1947, is seldom understood except by other poets. As with Proust’s seven-volume novel, far more readers begin this six-part poem than finish it. It is, concedes Alan Jacobs, the editor of a smart new edition, ‘extraordinarily famous for a book so little read; or, extraordinarily little read for a book so famous.’

One obstacle is the misleading title. Anxiety is only obliquely Auden’s subject: by 1947 he had renounced politically propagandising poetry, and did not give the commentary on Cold War tensions that readers anticipated. The poem comprises a dialogue between four strangers who start talking in a New York bar during the final months of the second world war. Malin, a medical officer in the Canadian air force, personifies Intellect; Rosetta, a department-store buyer, personifies Feeling; Quant, a downtrodden shipping clerk, personifies Intuition; and Emble, a horny young sailor, personifies Sensation. They talk in the bar, they vanish into individual dream worlds, return to reality when the barman chucks them out, continue talking in a taxi-ride to Rosetta’s apartment, where they sing, and some dance and kiss. The descriptions of their chance meeting conjure the private emptiness and public anti-climax experienced by war victors when their enemies are vanquished.

Staginess is the poem’s surpassing theme. ‘Only animals who are below civilisation and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere’, Auden declares.

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Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.

Countless writers have satirised human phoniness — Anthony Powell says something similar about the posturing of politicians, millionaires and poets in Books Do Furnish A Room — but Auden drenches The Age of Anxiety in ironical play and posing. The theatricality of the protagonists’ exchanges, the studied rhetoric and enveloping haze of artifice reflects the self-consciousness that Auden felt made 20th-century people so bogus. Individual passages of the poem are sumptuous, and there is thrilling wit, but the elaborateness sometimes exasperates.

Auden used amphetamines during the poem’s composition, which perhaps heightened his own anxieties. The clotted richness of his vocabulary and kaleidoscopic encyclopaedia of ideas may owe a little to Benzedrine. His allusions whizz about between Jung, Jewish mysticism, English whodunnits, Arcadian daydreams, Victorian Edens. A line is borrowed here from Eric, or Little by Little, there from Heidegger. The polymath crankiness of Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History provided the outlandish tribal names, but Auden’s sensibility supplied the ominous imagery, in such lines as:

The Arsocids and the Alonites,
The Ghuzz, the Guptas, the gloomy Krim- chaks,
The Timirids and Torguts, with terrible cries
Will drag you off to their dream retreats
To dance with your deaths till the dykes collapse.

Auden used alliteration, at times resembling an amphetamine user’s stutter, and complex poetic metres based on medieval verses: Piers Ploughman is a model, and the beautiful section beginning ‘Hushed is the lake of hawks’ is based on an old Norse verse form called dróttkvaet.

Twenty years earlier, as an Oxford undergraduate, Auden had bribed a college scout to keep quiet after he had been surprised in bed with John Betjeman. Auden dedicated The Age of Anxiety to Betjeman, not in gratitude for a one-night stand, but in acknowledgment of the Betjemanesque nostalgia and luscious imaginary landscapes that recur throughout the poem.

It ends with two protagonists, a Jewish woman and a Christian man, experiencing spiritual epiphanies — the Jewish experience less intellectualised, more eloquent and convincing than the gentile, and ending with Judaism’s most important prayer, adonai elohenu, adonai echad.

This new edition contains an elegant, unostentatious commentary by Alan Jacobs, an American professor whose previous books include a cultural history of Original Sin.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Auden, Book review, Literature, Non-fiction, Poetry