Age of Anxiety out in “new” critical edition

by onepuzzledspecies

The first annotated, critical edition of The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue  was published in 2011, edited by Alan Jacobs. (Check it out here)

I just got a hold of it, after a kind acquaintance brought it over from the U.S.

The poem is, as Jacobs notes, “almost certainly the least read of Auden’s major works.” Its title, on the other hand, quickly caught on and became an often used phrase, as a Google search will quickly prove.

The alliterative verse Auden uses is a lot of fun – it toes the line between exhausting and hypnotic, but avoids the latter by its asymmetric caesuras (which break up the flow somewhat) and the first by, well, virtuosity. If you ask me.

I am enjoying Jacobs’ volume, which draws on archival research from, among others, the Harry Ransom Center, and includes notes on the compositional stages of the text as well as two letters written by Auden in which he explains aspects of his metrical technique.

The Age of Anxiety takes place in a bar in New York. We are introduced to four characters, who, among other things, each represent one of the Four Faculties described by Carl Jung in Psychological Types; Thinking, Sensation, Intuition and Feeling. They get to know each other in the bar, and end up going on a “quest” (or several quests) together during the course of the night. The book-length poem consists of a series of conversations between the characters, with some occasional prose commentary by the author.

For an illustration of the poem’s meter, here is the first monologue in the poem, where the character Quant is observing his reflection in the mirror and thinking to himself:

My deuce, my double, my dear image,

Is it lively there, that land of glass

Where song is a grimace, sound logic

A suite of gestures? You seem amused.


The average line in this part of the poem has 9 syllables, with three alliterations per line. Auden, in one of the included letters, explains that he had to abandon a pure quantitative meter, as it became too difficult in modern English. “To compensate,” he borrowed syllabic counting from the romance tradition. With regards to the alliteration, he writes: “There are lines in which the second alliteration is not exact, but I believe or hope that the first and third are always correct, eg:    st. s. st. x   ” Continuing from Quant’s internal monologue:

How glad and good when you go to bed,

Do you feel, my friend? What flavor has

That liquor you lift with your left hand;

Is it cold by contrast, cool as this

For a soiled soul; does your self like mine

Taste of untruth? Tell me, what are you

Hiding in your heart, some angel face,

Some shadowy she who shares in my absence,

Enjoys my jokes? I’m jealous, surely,

Nicer myself (though not as honest),

The marked man of romantic thrillers

Whose brow bears the brand of a winter

No priest can explain, the poet disguised,

Thinking over things in thieves’ kitchens,

Wanted by the waste, whom women’s love

Or his own silhouette might all too soon

Betray to its tortures. I’ll track you down,

I’ll make you confess how much you know who

View my vices with a valet’s slight

But shameless shrug, the Schadenfreude

Of cooks at keyholes. Old comrade, tell me

The lie of my lifetime but look me up in

Your good graces; agree to be friends

Till our deaths differ; drink, strange future,

To your neighbor now.


As I said, I find the alliterative meter intriguing, and couldn’t resist the temptation to try to translate it into Norwegian. Now, I am by no means a proper translator, but the attempt really brings out some of the metrical challenges. This was done rather quickly, and I’ve allowed myself a bit of flexibility: The average number of syllables per line, for instance, is 11 rather than 9. In my experience, Norwegian words tend to have more syllables than their English equivalents, and thus requiring a slight expansion. In several lines I found it impossible to limit the number of syllables to 9,and have therefore allowed both 11 and 13 syllables – and, once, 7. My priority has been to stick to the pattern of each line having an odd number of syllables, and thereby retaining the asymmetric caesuras, which I believe is a major element of the poem’s rhythm and effect.

I’ve tried, as far as possible, to have three alliterations per line, but I had to break Auden’s rule of always having the first and third alliteration be perfect. Auden writes that he tried “to follow O.E. practice in avoiding a dactylic rhythm” –  and I have to admit, I haven’t even attempted that one. Lastly, a few words have been changed slightly for the sake of rhythm or alliteration – such as “liquor”, where I’ve used the word “likør” (=liqueur) rather than the more accurate “sprit”.


Min djevel, min deilige dobbeltgjenger,

Er det no’ liv der, i landet av glass hvor

Sang er grimaser og sunn fornuft

En suite av gestikulering? Du ser fornøyd ut.

Hvor vel og vittig føler du deg når du våkner,

Hvor glad og god når du går til sengs,

Min venn?  Og hvordan smaker

Likøren du løfter med lette hender;

Er den kald som kontrast, kjølig som denne

For en skitten sjel; smaker selvet ditt som

Mitt av usannhet? Si meg, hva er det du

Gjemmer der i ditt hjerte, et englefjes,

Et skyggelagt she som deler mitt fravær,

Fniser av vitser? Jeg er sikkert sjalu,

Greiere selv (men ærlig talt ikke så ærlig)

Den merkede mann fra romantiske thrillere,

Hvis bryn bærer brennmerket av en vinter

Ingen prest kan forklare, en skjult poet,

Tenker over ting i tyvenes kjøkken,

Ønsket av ødsel, han som kvinners ømhet

Eller sin egen silhuett kanskje alt for snart

Oppgir til sine redsler. Jeg vil spore deg opp,

Jeg skal få deg til å tilstå hvor mye du vet,

Du som ser mine laster med en tjeners

Lakoniske skuldertrekk, og ei kokkes

Skadefryd ved nøkkelhullet. Kompis, fortell meg

Mitt livs største løgn, men la meg vinne din

Velvilje, la oss si vi er venner til

Døden vinner; drikk nå, fremmede framtid,

Til din nabo nå.