“We would rather be ruined than changed/We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.”
W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety is not an easy read. As a cultural artifact (published in 1947, as the modernist moment is fading), it is fascinating as it exhibits the underpinnings of all modern literature: the competing sensibilities of loss and liberation. The very form of the poem, an eclogue, gestures toward this sense of loss as it holds on to this classical convention as if to center its subject–how to find meaning in a changing and increasingly industrialized world. That said, the choice of the eclogue, the domain of Virgil and all that is pastoral, is deliberate and disrupts and dislocates the images of metropolitan life we see in the text. Set in a NYC bar and told through the conversations between four characters, Auden’s poem considers man’s quest for understanding at the dawn of a new era. The poem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and inspired a musical composition by Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2.
Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a concert performance of Bernstein’s piece by Boston’s New Philharmonia Orchestra. In the first moments of the score, I was so moved by the plaintive sounds of the woodwind instruments, I felt my eyes well up. And that emotional connection continued throughout the whole piece. Just lovely. And the performance inspired me to reread the poem this week, which is a good thing.
Here is the gorgeous concert stage in Newton’s First Baptist Church…as you might imagine, the acoustics are fantastic.
And here is my seven-year-old concert date, who gave the music two thumbs up!