W. H. Auden was one of the outstanding poets of the twentieth century. He had not only the vision and skill of a major poet but also the necessary luck, or perspicacity, to create poetry that many of his contemporaries felt spoke for them. He spoke their language, he had the “sound” of the 1930’s, and he found that sound early. He played a part in shaping the decade because his words and ideas shaped many of the people who influenced the course of events. Auden went on composing poetry for another thirty years and more, but he made his mark when he was barely thirty years old.
Auden was born in 1907 in England, where he continued to live until emigrating to the United States in 1939 just before World War II broke out in Europe. He studied at Oxford, publishing his first book of poems in his early twenties and several more in his next decade. He also published plays, some of which were given radio performance, and he supported himself by teaching school; once in the United States, he took temporary positions at a number of colleges.
Although Auden never stopped challenging his readers, his work began to lose currency during the 1940’s. His career peaked early, and while his early success guaranteed him a substantial readership for the remainder of his days, many felt that his career was on a downward slope in later years.
Auden wrote The Age of Anxiety right after World War II. Its setting recalls “September 1, 1939,” the poem he wrote on the outbreak of that war, which begins
I sit in one of the divesOn Fifty-Second StreetUncertain and afraidAs the clever hopes expireOf a low dishonest decade.
It is as though the poet were completing a circuit after a hiatus of several years, although there is little other similarity between “September 1, 1939” and The Age of Anxiety. The former is driven urgently by the need to respond to the impending cataclysm after Germany invaded Poland. The Age of Anxiety, on the other hand, although it, too, is set during World War II, was actually written more than a year after the war’s end. The poem contains many passages that are amusing, entertaining, and instructive, but overall the work feels desultory and undermotivated. Many critics agree that it is not among Auden’s finer achievements.
To understand the attractiveness of Auden’s earlier work, it needs to be seen against the backdrop of its immediate precursors, principal among them the poems of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H. D., Marianne Moore, and Edith Sitwell among the modernists, and Robert Graves, John Betjeman, and W. B. Yeats among those who opposed the modernist temper. The figure of the long-lived Thomas Hardy, born in 1840 but still writing poems during the 1920’s, also looms large in this configuration. Auden took it upon himself to create a poetry that reconciled these various camps.
Auden’s innovations were characteristically paradoxical. He kept up with the innovators of the previous generation by returning innovation to traditional measures. He resuscitated many old forms and gave them a contemporary aspect. He was particularly fond of, and adroit with, Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, verse techniques, bringing their heavy alliteration and paucity of articles into play while presenting a modern landscape or theory. The Age of Anxiety shows this technique, as in the passage with Auden’s rendering of a radio bulletin during World War II:
Now the news. Night raids onFive cities. Fires started.Pressure applied by pincer movementIn threatening thrust. Third DivisionEnlarges beachhead. Lucky charmSaves sniper. Sabotage hintedIn steel-mill stoppage. Strong point heldBy...
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