The bronze medal goes to a brilliant person who can find a name that sticks to characterize a decade. Do we have one yet for 2000 – 2010? Anyone who gets to name an “age,” even if it’s not that widely applicable, like the Jazz Age or the Gilded Age, gets the silver medal. The gold medal goes to the genius who names an age that applies to just about everyone. The gold medal winner for me is W.H. Auden for the Age of Anxiety–or whoever coined this phrase earlier.
I came across this quote by Auden about the Bomb when leafing through a collection of old New York Times Sunday Magazines:
Our world will be a safer and a healthier place when we can admit that every time we make an atomic bomb we corrupt the morals of a host of innocent neutrons below the age of consent.
This quote led me to “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue.” “Eclogue” is a poem where shepherds converse, from the Middle English,”eclog.” (I looked it up.) How’s that for serious poetic chops?
Auden’s thin book was published in 1946 and is set two years earlier, before the Bomb gave new meaning to anxiety. It’s about four people who meet in a bar (why would I kid you?) who express themselves in brilliant verse. They are deeply affected by the carnage of war, and they dwell in doubt and foreboding.
The Age of Anxiety is with us still, and shows no signs of diminishment. Auden’s mastery begins with this prologue:
When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.
Here’s a sampler:
…Thousands lie in
Ruins by roads, irrational in woods,
Insensitive upon snow-bound plains,
Or littered lifeless along low costs
Where shingle shuffles as smabling waves
Feebly fiddle in the fading light
With bloated bodies, beached among groynes,
Male no longer, unmotivated,
Have-beens without hopes: earth takes charge of.
Soil accepts for a serious purpose
The jettisoned blood of jokes and dreams,
Making buds from bone, from brains the good
Vague vegetable; survivors play
Cards in the kitchen while candles flicker
And in blood-spattered barns bandaged men,
Their poor hands in a panic of need
Groping weakly for a gun-butt or
A friendly fist, are fetched off darkling.
Many have perished; more will.
…And the godless growing like green cedars
Of righteous ruins. The reticent earth,
Exposed by the spade, speaks its warning
With successive layers of sacked temples
And dead civilians.
…Sob, heavy world.
Sob as you spin.