Review : Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden

The Age of Anxiety is one of Auden’s greatest works, indeed probably one of the greatest poems of the Twentieth Century, but I do think the popular verdict is correct. It is a poem that is more fittingly respected than loved.

The poem is not sure what genre it is, which makes it both jungly diverse and plain cacophonous. I don’t know enough about poetic forms to catch all of the references, but it is at least simultaneously a medieval quest/dream poem, an oblique account of World War II, a landscape poem, a mystical treatise, and a philosophical and psychological thought experiment, with hints of a murder mystery. I think it is safe to say that the poem does not succeed in accomplishing all of its tasks, but it cannot be faulted for leaving such a monstrous to-do list incomplete.

Almost the entire poem (and it is long!) is written in Medieval alliterative verse, but in thoroughly modern English. The result is a dissonant clash of registers. It’s one of Auden’s signature blends, the twin obscurantism of arcane sites of Western civilization and dated slang. I felt like I was reading a bizarre chimera of Piers Plowman and Casablanca. I must confess that I love alliterative verse, but I recognize that the whole technical enterprise was a bit… nerdy.

Theologically, the poem is an attempt to follow Kierkegaard down into the depths of our sin, cultivating the ancient spiritual practice of admitting just how screwed up we really are. The poem is about 80% law and 20% gospel, but even that 20% of gospel is shown to be half-meant and play-acted. The result is a brutal assessment of Western culture’s sickness in the middle of the twentieth century. And the diseases Auden diagnoses – consumerism, technology worship, information overload, propaganda as advertising, pervasive loneliness – have only intensified. It’s not a happy poem.

But, perhaps undercutting the poem’s bleakness is the poetry itself, which contains many bright miniature worlds dreamily interwoven into the poem’s plot. (Although, to say that the poem even has a plot is a bit of an overstatement.)

After finishing The Age of Anxiety, I don’t think I will return to it as often or with as much relish as I will some of Auden’s other poems. Still, for anyone seriously interested in Auden or culture care, it is essential reading.

PS The introduction is by Alan Jacobs, and, as with pretty much everything else the man writes, it is amazing and worth reading on its own.


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