When it was first published in 1947, The Age of Anxiety--W. H. Auden's last, longest, and most ambitious book-length poem--immediately struck a powerful chord, capturing the imagination of the cultural moment that it diagnosed and named. Beginning as a conversation among four strangers in a barroom on New York's Third Avenue, Auden's analysis of Western culture during the Second World War won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein as well as a ballet by Jerome Robbins. Yet reviews of the poem were sharply divided, and today, despite its continuing fame, it is unjustly neglected by readers. This volume--the first annotated, critical edition of the poem--introduces this important work to a new generation of readers by putting it in historical and biographical context and elucidating its difficulties. Alan Jacobs's introduction and thorough annotations help today's readers understand and appreciate the full richness of a poem that contains some of Auden's most powerful and beautiful verse, and that still deserves a central place in the canon of twentieth-century poetry.
But what use is it, this classification of temperaments into four types, this journey into disappointment, this faint reprieve at the end granted by love and the passive acknowledgment of the impossibility of salvation? Can anyone, now, see themselves in this? Is it possible to read this as something other than a mid-century project, impelled by its author's transient constellation of literary sources and idiosyncratic poetic ambition? I don't think so. I cannot imagine a state of mind in which I would feel comforted, or feel I'd gained insight, from being told there are Four Faculties, or that we need to be "too resigned" for happiness (that's Jacobs, but it's accurate), or that the necessary journey has seven stages, or that "age softens the sense of defeat / As well as the will to success" (p. 103), or that "we are mocked by unmeaning" (p. 33), and so on... the poem is filled with quotable conclusions, as hesitant and contextual as they may be.
The passivism (as opposed to pacifism) of the book's politics has attracted the attention of some writers, and "The Age of Anxiety" has been said to be exemplary for "our" age of political skepticism. Whether or not it makes sense to say we're in such an age (and it very nearly doesn't, because the notion is so thoroughly riddled with exceptions), this is not the book to give that position to the twenty-first century. It's a book of individual, isolated passages, some of which are really magnificent (pp. 30, 32, 33, 87, 103...).