British Poet in America
The Age of Anxiety
by W. H. Auden.
Random House, 1947. 138 pp. $2.50.
As a large and ambitious production by one of the best living poets, The Age of Anxiety is disappointing. The four vaguest characters in modern literature (Quant, a shipping clerk and widower; Malin, a medical intelligence officer in the RCAF; Emble, a young mid-Western naval officer; Rosetta, a department-store buyer) sit around one evening during the recent war, first in a Third Avenue bar, then in Rosetta’s apartment, and mull things over: the modern soul, the seven ages of man’s life, the seven stages of some dream-quest, the possibilities of happiness, the alienations of men, the ennuis of America. They think, then they talk; in the cab they sing a dirge; Emble and Rosetta make vague love, Emble passes out; Quant sings, Malin thinks, on their way home. As in some recent novels but for no reason that appears sufficient, it is All Souls’, and everything goes, all the tangle of current intellectual equipment. The numerous subjects are dim and confused, the styles are nerveless and self-indulgent, anything comes up anywhere and nothing happens to it. The occasional prose seems more thoughtful, really, and more natural than the verse, though the verse is sporadically “brilliant” and there are good lines and passages.
The general effect is that of a parody of Auden by somebody very pretentious and uncertain, but so gifted that it can only be Auden himself. The whole tone, anyway, apocalyptic or skittish or heavy-avuncular, is Auden’s; the other characters speak for him as steadily as Quant. There can be no doubt that he wrote the entire poem, and:
In the high heavens,
The ageless places,
The gods are wringing their great worn hands.
Auden’s present subject, actually, and his failure with it as semi-dramatic, were predicted by Randall Jarrell several years ago when he wrote in Partisan Review: “What we are most anxious about is our anxiety itself: the greatest of all sins, Auden learns from Kafka, is impatience—and he decides that the hero ‘is, in fact, one who is not anxious.’ But it was inevitable that Auden should arrive at this point. His anxiety is fundamental; and the one thing that anxiety cannot do is to accept itself, to do nothing about itself—consequently it admires more than anything else in the world doing nothing, sitting still, waiting.” The attitude goes far back in Auden, though not to his earliest work; it can be seen developing in an ambivalent sonnet from Look, Stranger, now called “Who’s Who,” about a T. E. Lawrence sort of hero whose ambition and energy are in effect condemned by comparison with the self-effacement and indolence of one he loves, who
could whistle; would sit still
Or potter around the garden; answered some
Of his long marvelous letters but kept none.
“The guilt and grime of a great career,” he comments now, and
the caring poet,
Child of his chamber, chooses rightly
His pleased pictures of pure solitudes
Where gusts gamble over gaunt areas
Frozen and futile but far enough. . . .
(So Rosetta, but it might be any of them, and whether “gamble” is a misprint cannot be determined in a style riddled with lazy puns—as on pages 93-4 a speech seems to be mis-assigned, but which, and whose, it is impossible to tell.) It is an unfortunate attitude for the writing of things even so tentatively dramatic as conversation-pastorals, much less plays, and helps explain Auden’s remarkable indifference to characterization.
I say “conversation-pastorals” because the book is subtitled “A Baroque Pastoral,” though—for reasons requiring too much space to set out—I hardly think it is a pastoral, whether in Greg’s senses or Empson’s, or indeed anybody’s except several other contemporary poets who use the words “pastoral” and “eclogue” as if they had no content. How far it is baroque is a question that would repay investigation only if the poem were better and clearer and somewhat unified; actualism is frequent, certainly, and distortion is constant—the first “conversation” (p. 17) at the first reading freezes the reader’s hope that in spite of what has happened and not happened already the poem may yet prove good. The versification is interesting, based mostly on a trochaic dimeter (4-stress), alliterative, unrhymed, with caesura and much substitution; more interesting, if my ear is right, than satisfying.
But a more depressing reason for the poem’s degree of failure is that its author is dealing with a life he does not seem to understand, American life. He does the best he can, taking as characters a Jewish immigrant woman, a Canadian (perhaps), and an Irishman-born, along with one native; but there is little, I’m afraid, either representative or individual about them in their situations, which are American. Their language is hybrid, and uncertain. Nothing in the poem seems real except the poet’s uneasiness. “The less I feel/The more I mind.” The informality and vulgarity which impress Europeans in American life make them feel, often, that it will be easy to understand this life, or even that there is nothing to understand, but I wonder whether it is not in fact much more difficult to seize for imagination, and even for practice, than the more coherent and complex life of a European country. Compare the sensitive English and insensitive American passages in New York Letter (Part III)—a work written soon after Auden came to this country but closely paralleled by inequalities in the present work. One has made out in Auden’s verse for years a thoughtless and headlong attempt to Americanize himself, and it has produced something easier to feel undesirable than to describe, a literary effect resembling the excessive though uncomprehending appreciation with which one has seen cultured Europeans trying to initiate themselves into the philistine mysteries of the New Yorker magazine. There is 6/11/2008wonder.
Perhaps The Age of Anxiety will not matter more, when it comes to occupy thirty double-column pages in Auden’s final Collected Poems, than do some of the efforts of Wordsworth or Tennyson hidden in their thousand pages. Such a recent lyric as “The Fall of Rome” shows him wonderful still, and instead of lamenting the present book one feels inclined simply to thank him again for years of excitement and delight, bow awkwardly to his American phase so far, and wish him luck. At the same time, Auden appears to have been struggling less and less successfully with a peculiar tastelessness, which is able to produce (for the New Yorker, of course) merciless trash like “The Glamour Boys and Girls Have Grievances Too,” and which leads him to caption the second of his great poems on the Dioscuri (the first was “The Witnesses”) “Not All the Candidates Pass” in the Collected Poetry. This is a different matter from his anxiety to disclaim and discredit his early work (so that III in Poems is later fantastically entitled “Venus Will Now Say a Few Words”); but both are allied with what Delmore Schwartz calls the “tourist slanginess” which is infecting his whole style and is especially malignant in this new poem. The artificial race lament, given to Rosetta when at the end Auden suddenly remembers why he made her Jewish (a character that scarcely appears in her through a hundred pages), makes one gloomier still. It is hard to be much more optimistic about the work to come, just at the moment, than the magnificent and uneasy poet probably is himself.