Auden’s poem is best approached from the context of modernist and existential theology, where “anxiety” (or unfocused concern) about the apparent meaninglessness of life (akin to the angst or “dread” of Kierkegaard and later existentialists) is an overriding concern, as Paul Tillich describes in The Courage to Be (1952). As the characters voice their disillusionment with modern industrial society and with the world of scientific rationalism, each reveals bitter loneliness as well as an abiding estrangement from all sources of meaning.
The four characters are presented both as individuals with personal needs and as symbolic types, for most Auden scholars agree that the quartet represents the four faculties of the mind described in the theoretical psychology of C. G. Jung. In this interpretation, Malin embodies reason; Quant, intuition; Rosetta, emotion; and Emble, sensation or experience attained through the senses. Such a scheme may indicate that Auden saw humanity as afflicted by a “divided consciousness.” However, such allegorical symbolism also shows Auden’s desire to endow his questing characters with a universal or “everyman” quality, as intended in traditional Christian allegories, such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (part 1, 1678; part 2, 1694).
Obviously, Auden’s speakers are driven by a longing for a true community of vital human interaction,...
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