It was both hailed as ‘his best work to date’ and damned as ‘his one failure’. Leonard Bernstein’s symphony, inspired by the poem, is the better work of art, argues Glyn Maxwell
In 1944, in New York City, against a background of a changed and frightening world, the finest – and most controversial – English poet of the day began work on a new long poem. On its publication three years later it would garner some of the worst reviews he ever got and leave many of his devotees cold: while TS Eliot hailed it as “his best work to date”, the Times Literary Supplement deemed it “his one dull book, his one failure”. It would inspire a symphony and a ballet and win the Pulitzer prize. It was the last long poem he would write.
“The Age of Anxiety” is the strangest flower of a marvellously fertile period. The decade following WH Auden’s emigration to New York in 1939 produced not only the long poems “For the Time Being”, “New Year Letter” and “The Sea and the Mirror” – his sublime meditation on The Tempest – but some of the finest works of this or any 20th-century poet: “In Memory of WB Yeats”, “At the Grave of Henry James”, “If I Could Tell You”, “The Fall of Rome”, “The Quest”. And the great – and latterly disavowed – lament for a falling world “September 1st, 1939”.
There are still, remarkably, some who believe Auden’s gift deserted him when he left England on the eve of the second world war, as if this perceived treachery to the motherland crippled him creatively, but another reason for this position is suggested by the words of Anthony Powell on Auden’s death in 1973, as reported by Kingsley Amis, with whom Powell was breakfasting: “I’m delighted that shit has gone . . . It should have happened years ago . . . scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend like a . . . like a . . .” But there’ll always be an England.
Listen to Leonard Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” (Symphony No. 2, after W. H. Auden) Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York conducted by Leonard Bernstein