A Dive on Third Avenue

'The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue'

W. H. Auden
Princeton University Press, $22.95, 200 pp.

In 1941 an English critic published a book on recent poetry called Auden and After. That title indicated how Wystan Hugh Auden, not yet thirty-five, had, since Faber published his Poems in 1930, become a central figure on the literary scene; Wyndham Lewis referred to him as “the new guy who has got into the landscape.” Auden’s influence extended beyond England, and an American poet, Karl Shapiro, remarked in his verse Essay on Rime (1945), “The man whose impact on our rhetoric / Has for a decade dominated verse / In London, Sydney and New York is Auden. / One cannot estimate the consequence / Both good and bad of his success.”

Much of Auden’s appeal was stylistic; he was a brilliantly accomplished craftsman, who could combine the lyrical and the cerebral, and he showed how Eliot’s poetic innovations could be extended and applied to new aspects of the contemporary world. Yet despite his international readership, Auden, in the first phase of his career, was intensely focused on England and the English. In his early extravaganza The Orators, a headmaster asks the assembled boys, “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” Auden readily adopted the stance of a diagnostician of the prevailing malaise. But much of his focus on England was geographical, even geological. In contrast to the celebratory or sentimental visions of  earlier poets who saw England in terms of green meadows and rolling hills, fruitful orchards, charming villages, and gemütlich countryfolk, Auden celebrated the industrial landscape of the Midlands, where he had grown up, and the wilder country of Northern England, where the hills were steeper and starker, with outcrops of naked geology, and where the weather was likely to be rougher. Auden mythicized this region in his poetry, assimilating it to Scandinavia (from which many of its inhabitants had originally come), and even to Iceland, whose poetry he had studied and which he visited in 1936.

Auden viewed the people of England, “where nobody is well,” with the eye of a pathologist. Insofar as their disorder was economic, at a time of global depression and high unemployment, then Marx could supply the appropriate medicine. And since the English were in the grip of every kind of psychological disability, Freud was the other necessary physician. How far Auden really believed all this is uncertain, but these myths informed his early poetry, where he offered analyses and prescriptions in a crisp dogmatic tone. By the late 1930s the pattern was changing. Auden traveled beyond England—to Republican Spain during the civil war, and, with his friend and literary collaborator Christopher Isherwood, to China, which the Japanese were invading. Then early in 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed to the United States, and remained there. Auden regarded this move as a decisive break with his past, as he indicated in his poem, “September 1, 1939,” the date of the German invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War.

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade...

Auden stayed in the United States and made a career there, as a teacher and a contributor to various publications (including Commonweal). This expatriation made him unpopular in wartime England; Evelyn Waugh, in his novel of 1942, Put Out More Flags, satirized the absentee Auden and Isherwood as “Parsnip and Pimpernell.”

In addition to his journalism, Auden was also busy writing poetry in his new environment. He had written long poems at intervals in his career, and in the early 1940s he published two extended poems in quasi-dramatic form, with prose interludes: The Sea and the Mirror, subtitled “A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest”; and For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, which has an epigraph from the Epistle to the Romans, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.”

In this work Auden writes as a Christian, indicating another break with his recent past; he did not see himself as having made a dramatic act of conversion, but rather as having returned to the Anglican belief and devotions in which he had been brought up. He subsequently remarked that he had been much affected by the sight of despoiled churches in Republican Spain. Auden continued to look at the world in psychoanalytic terms, but in a Jungian rather than a Freudian light; Jung was far more sympathetic to religion.

Auden’s American admirers may have hoped that he would become an American poet, in a simple exchange for Eliot. This did not happen. Auden was more or less forgiven for his wartime absence from England, or at least a younger generation was less troubled by it, and in the 1950s he served for some years as a professor of poetry at Oxford. But his main domicile was in rural Austria, where he died in 1973.

Auden’s next long poem in the 1940s was The Age of Anxiety, now reissued by Princeton University Press as part of its admirable series of critical editions of Auden’s work, under the general editorship of Edward Mendelson. This edition of The Age of Anxiety has an introduction and notes, very competently done, by Alan Jacobs. The jacket displays tributes to the work from reviews written when it first came out, including high praise from Leonard Bernstein, Marianne Moore, and Jacques Barzun. The only English reviewer quoted, Auden’s old friend Stephen Spender, offers what is in fact equivocal praise, saying the work was “[One of] Auden’s outstanding American works.” For many English readers, Auden had ceased to be an English poet. As I recall, The Age of Anxiety was not well received in Britain. A copy of the Faber edition has sat on my shelves for many years, and I was glad of the chance to revisit the work.

It is subtitled “A Baroque Eclogue,” which introduces a problematic element from the very beginning. In Greek and Latin poetry, an eclogue was originally a pastoral poem in which poet-shepherds successively recited their compositions. It became applied to any short poem with a rural or pastoral setting, and the Oxford Companion to English Literature concedes, “the terms eclogue, bucolic, and idyll have been widely used as synonyms.” The “baroque” of Auden’s subtitle points to something very different: the controlled energy, the love of ingenious decoration, the discontinuities, and the cultivation of startling effects that appeared in all the European arts in the seventeenth century. The notion of a “baroque eclogue” is inherently paradoxical, and there is nothing pastoral or idyllic about The Age of Anxiety, which is set entirely in New York City on All Souls Night during the war years, which places it between 1942 and 1944. The poem opens in a bar on Third Avenue, where four assorted drinkers get into conversation, in a setting reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Although the phrase “the age of anxiety” has become something of a cliché in dissections of the modern world, Auden’s poem has never become popular; as Alan Jacobs remarks, “it is extraordinarily famous for a book so little read; or, extraordinarily little read for a book so famous.” This neglect may not be entirely the fault of potential readers. The book’s generic uncertainty as a “baroque eclogue” is confusing, and it is not easy to know just what is going on for much of the time. Unlike For the Time Being and The Sea and the Mirror, the poem is not based on an already familiar narrative. It opens in a straightforward way, as the four drinkers are identified like characters in the first chapter of a novel. Malin is on leave from the Canadian air force, whose uniform he wears, and where he is a medical intelligence officer. Quant is a “tired old widower who would never be more now than a clerk in a shipping office near the Battery.” Rosetta has a well-paid job as a buyer for a big department store. Emble, the youngest, has enlisted in the navy during his sophomore year at a Midwestern university. He is, we learn later, the only native-born American in the group: Malin is Canadian, and Quant and Rosetta were born in Ireland and England respectively.

The first part of the poem follows the classical eclogue insofar as the participants make speeches but without interacting. Then, in the second section, they move from the counter to the more intimate setting of a booth. This is a strange and puzzling episode. The drinkers seem to have fallen asleep and are engaged in a collective dream, which recalls the dream visions of medieval poetry. They move through the Seven Ages of Man by a variety of means: on foot, by car, by train, in the air. Here the isolation of the characters in the first section begins to break down, as Emble and Rosetta feel a mutual attraction. In the third part the characters are awake again and back in the bar, and there is more mutual activity than earlier in the poem. In fact, the narrative acquires some of the characteristics of a naturalistic short story. At Rosetta’s suggestion they take a cab back to her flat for drinks and sandwiches. There she and Emble dance to music from the radio, and after a while Malin and Quant discreetly make their departure. When Rosetta returns from seeing them out, she finds that Emble has passed out on her bed. The poem ends with Malin, who seems to embody Auden’s view of the world, riding on the subway. He engages in an inner monologue that invokes St. Paul and St. Augustine.

The Age of Anxiety is stylistically original. Quant’s opening utterance, while he is observing his reflection in a mirror in the bar, runs:

My deuce, my double, my dear image,

Is it lively there, that land of glass

Where song is a grimace, sound logic

A suite of gestures? You seem amused.

This has the verbal precision and the relaxed but controlled movement of Auden’s poetry at its best. It also shows an innovation in his writing. In The Age of Anxiety Auden abandons the metrical norms that had governed English poetry for many centuries, and returns to the alliterative verse that was a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon poetry he had studied at Oxford. Alliteration was still dominant in the fourteenth century, in Langland and the Gawain poet, but gave way before the advance of the French and Italian models exemplified by Chaucer. Auden’s use of alliteration throughout The Age of Anxiety was a remarkable accomplishment. But though he achieved felicitous effects in particular passages, and the form was a vehicle for his great technical accomplishment, the overall effect is of deliberate antiquarianism. Alliteration could achieve less than later, more familiar metrical effects.

Alan Jacob observes in his introduction, “In The Age of Anxiety...Auden forcibly explores the manifold varieties of artifice; he multiplies forms and genres dizzyingly. If ‘reduplicated Hamlets’ prefer to discreetly observe themselves in an elegant pier glass, Auden offers instead a funhouse hall of mirrors.” This is an acute limiting judgment on the poem, which remains a remarkably interesting work. It will go on being a puzzle, but one is glad to have it available again, with such a helpful introduction.

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About the Author

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.