Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Age of Anxiety

My critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety will be out later this year, I hope, though it hasn't shown up on Amazon yet . . . but hey, while I’m handing out excerpts, how about one more? This is from my Introduction to the poem:

The Age of Anxiety begins in fear and doubt, but the four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. In even this accidental and temporary community there arises the possibility of what Auden once called “local understanding.” Certain anxieties may be overcome not by the altering of geopolitical conditions but by the cultivation of mutual sympathy — perhaps mutual love; even among those who hours before had been strangers.

The Age of Anxiety is W. H. Auden’s last book-length poem, his longest poem, and almost certainly the least-read of his major works. (“It’s frightfully long,” he told his friend Alan Ansen.) It would be interesting to know what fraction of those who begin reading it persist to the end. The poem is strange and oblique; it pursues in a highly concentrated form many of Auden’s long-term fascinations. Its meter imitates medieval alliterative verse, which Auden had been drawn to as an undergraduate when he attended J. R. R. Tolkien’s lectures in Anglo-Saxon philology, and which clearly influences the poems of his early twenties. The Age of Anxiety is largely a psychological, or psychohistorical, poem, and these were the categories in which Auden preferred to think in his early adulthood (including his undergraduate years at Oxford, when he enjoyed the role of confidential amateur analyst for his friends).

The poem also embraces Auden's interest in, among other things, the archetypal theories of Carl Gustav Jung, Jewish mysticism, English murder mysteries, and the linguistic and cultural differences between England and America. Woven through it is his nearly lifelong obsession with the poetic and mythological “green world” Auden variously calls Arcadia or Eden or simply the Good Place. Auden’s previous long poem had been called “The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” and Shakespeare haunts this poem too. (In the latter stages of writing The Age of Anxiety Auden was teaching a course on Shakespeare at the New School in Manhattan.)

But it should also be noted that this last long poem ended an era for Auden; his thought and verse pursued new directions after he completed it.

It's an amazing poem, I think, but an extraordinarily difficult one. If you plan to read it, as surely you should, you might want to look for a carefully annotated edition with a detailed contextual introduction. Just sayin'.

2 comments:

  • Michael Straight said...

    Could you recommend any Auden-for-beginners that someone new to his works might like to start with before tackling The Age of Anxiety?

  • Sure: the Auden Society homepage has lots of great links. See the “Poems” page for a starter set of his lyrics. Also, Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, who maintains the Auden Society site, carefully edited the Wikipedia page that he links to from the homepage, so it’s an excellent overview of Auden’s life and career.

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