September 19, 2018

W.H. Auden and Leonard Bernstein in “The Age of Anxiety”

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s never very pleasant in the morning to open The New York Times

—W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Auden was speaking in the fall of 1972, a year before he died in Vienna on September 28, 1973. One source of unpleasantness at that moment in history was Richard Nixon, who was into the before-the-fall fall of his second term. In mid-September 2018 opening the Times is like the first jarring swallow of a cup of gruesomely strong coffee you can’t stop drinking. Every morning you feel small stirrings of hope that the taste will mellow down to something closer to the Obama latte flavor you fondly like to think it used to have. Every morning it’s the same ordeal, with just a hint of the the addictive richness of false hope before the super-caffeinated reality hits you.

Between July 1944 and November 1946 when Auden was writing The Age of Anxiety (1947), his feelings about opening the Times every morning might have been expressed less politely, more in the tone of the poem’s prologue about the breaking down of “the historical process” in war-time when “everybody is reduced to the anxious status of a shady character or a displaced person” and “even the most prudent become worshippers of chance.”

Bernstein on the Wave

Seven decades later I’m in the kitchen rinsing the dinner dishes and listening to WWFM on the Bose Wave when an announcer mentions “The Age of Anxiety.” He’s referring to the intriguing piece of music that was playing when I turned on the radio. It’s an orchestral work from the 20th century featuring a pianist playing hard, fast, frenzied rhythms suggestive not of anxiety so much as of some counter-force, like the urban energy of a night club where dancers are frantically “tripping the light fantastic” to distract themselves from impending doom. I’m glad to hear it’s by Leonard Bernstein, since 2018 is his centennial, and my connection with his music doesn’t go much beyond the songs from West Side Story. The same could be said about my knowledge of W.H. Auden’s poetry, which until a few days ago was confined to anthology pieces like “September 1, 1939,” a poem he has disavowed.

“Fascinating and Hair-Raising”

The most succinct summation of Age of Anxiety I’ve found is Glyn Maxwell’s article in the April 9, 2010 Guardian, which begins by pairing a quote from T.S. Eliot (Auden’s “best work to date”) with one in the Times Literary Supplement (“his one dull book, his one failure”). The strangers who meet each other in a New York bar are “Malin, a Canadian airman; Quant, a world-weary clerk; Rosetta, a buyer for a department-store; and Emble, a young naval recruit. Over six sections — a prologue, a life-story [“The Seven Ages”], a dream-quest[“The Seven Stages”], a dirge, a masque, and an epilogue — they meditate on their lives, their hopes, their losses, and on the human condition. In real terms they get talking at the bar, grab a booth together, get plastered and stagger back to Rosetta’s place. There they drink some more and dance a bit until the two older gents drift home and the younger one pledges undying love to Rosetta before crashing out on her bed.”

Bernstein found the work anything but dull. In his program note for the debut performance of “The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2” on April 8, 1949, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernstein’s mentor Serge Koussevitzky, with Bernstein himself playing the piano solo, he says that “Auden’s fascinating and hair-raising Eclogue had already begun to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947.” From that moment, the composition of the work it inspired took on “an almost compulsive quality,” with the conception emerging from his “extreme personal identification” with the poem.


New to both works,  I read the poem while listening to the music, and found the two so compatible it seemed possible that Auden had written The Age of Anxiety after listening to Bernstein’s symphony (Auden reportedly thought they had nothing to do with one another). A photo of the two men accompanying the YouTube posting of the original 1950 Columbia recording shows them with what appears to be the score spread out in front of them. Both are in suits and ties and smoking, Auden holding his cigarette Bette-Davis style and looking hard at Bernstein, who’s staring back as if to say, “You’re telling me my music has nothing to do with your poem?”

In fact the compatibility is almost eerie, especially if you read certain passages aloud more or less in accord with the movement in question. Take “The Seven Ages,” which is where the four strangers “get plastered.” It’s surely not a stretch to say that Bernstein would have been responsive to the moment when Rosetta puts a nickel in the “Wallomatic,” selecting “a sad little tune The Case is Closed (Tchaikovsky-Fink),” which she softly sings to: “Deep in my dark the dream shines/Yes, of you, you dear always/My cause to cry, cold but my/Story still, still my music.” Her soon-to-be dance partner and maybe lover Emble follows suit, his choice “a hot number, Bugs in the Bed by Bog Myrtle & Her Two-Timers,” complete with “musical mermaids.” Later the “juke-box jives rejoicing madly,” as someone chooses “a silly number With That Thing as played by The Three Snorts.

At this point, you seem to be reading a free-association frolic with hints of Beckett, Joyce, nursery rhymes, Alice in Wonderland, and all in a movement inspired by the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Echoes of Finnegan’s Wake haunt the foursome’s dream journey across the Atlantic to the old country in “The Seven Stages,” where Quant speaks of “Lizzie O’Flynn,/The capering cowgirl with clay on her hands,/Tasty truffles in utopian jars,/And dungarees with Danish buttons/For Shilly and Shally [think Shem and Shaun] the shepherd kings.”

Auden comments on the inspirational mode in his prose conclusion to “The Seven Ages”: “As everyone knows, many people reveal in a state of semi-intoxication capacities which are quite beyond them when they are sober: the shy talk easily and brilliantly to total strangers” and “the stammerers get through complicated sentences without a hitch.” A “more significant phenomenon” is “the way in which our faith in other selves, normally rather wobbly, is greatly strengthened and receives … the most startling justifications.”

Agents of Anxiety

Some “startling justifications” occur early on when everyone is still sober listening to news on the radio and absorbing agents of anxiety like “night raids, fires, fanatical Nazis, heroic marines, Axis excesses.” It’s actually the radio that brings the four strangers together: “And when in conclusion the instrument said — Buy a bond. Blood saves lives. Donate now. Name this station — they could no longer keep these thoughts to themselves, but turning towards each other on their high wood stools, became acquainted.” In words that could be referring to the Trumpish anxieties of our time, Rosetta says, “Numbers and nightmares have news value.” Malin adds, “A crime has occured, accusing all.” After Quant says “The world needs a wash and a week’s rest,” Emble mentions “barbarian misrule” and “wickedness with will,” and “the godless growing like green cedars/On righteous ruins.”

Later, looking at himself in the bar mirror, Quant asks “Whose trump hails your Shenanigans now?”

Easing the Pain

Auden’s reference to opening the New York Times comes in response to the question, “Are there any media which to you are strictly taboo?” After citing TV, movies (except Chaplin and the Marx Brothers), and rock and roll, he admits that newspapers are “painful, but one has to read then to know whatever is happening.” The idea of rock and roll as taboo has me rethinking my Times-as-gruesome-coffee analogy. One of the Paper of Record’s saving graces is that every morning there’s a story or an image or a feature that eases the pain. Like the photo from 1965 accompanying a recent article about Jamie Bernstein’s memoir that shows 13-year-old Jamie sitting smiling with a copy of the Beatles Rubber Soul album in her lap while her father, elbow propped on piano, cigarette between his fingers, gazes fondly down on her and her brother.


The cover of The Age of Anxiety shown here is from the Princeton Press Critical Edition edited by Alan Jacobs. The version I quoted from, however, is the Modern Library centennial edition of Auden’s Collected Poems, which I found at the Princeton Public Library. The interview is from The Paris Review Interviews, Writers at Work: 4th Series.