Michael KreponThe Age of Anxiety

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.


  1. SQ (History)

    If I may ask, Michael, what inspires you to read magazines from 1971?


  2. krepon (History)

    There’s a wicker basket in the basement that I rediscovered. Inside were old magazines that I saved for posterity. Among them: Newsweek’s October 2, 1967 pennant race issue with Carl Yastrzemski on the cover; the 1993 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, and the April 14, 1996 issue of the New York Times Magazine, celebrating 100 years of publication. Inside are snippets of articles thru the decades. And there was Auden’s amazing quote about neutrons, from the August 1, 1965 issue.

  3. SQ (History)

    Ah, a time capsule! Your earlier selves had interesting taste. But it turns out that Auden’s repetitive alliteration has gone out of style. It’s too overtly artful now and makes eyes roll.

  4. Bradley laing (History)

    By Elaine M. GrossmanFollow on TwitterFebruary 24, 2014

    Hagel did not rule out that the Pentagon might yet introduce spending reductions in the coming fiscal years to today’s elements of the nuclear triad: Navy submarine-based Trident D-5 ballistic missiles; Air Force B-2 and B-52 bomber aircraft; and Air Force Minuteman 3 ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

    However, as part of maintaining all three legs of the nuclear triad, he said the Pentagon plans to continue investing in the development of a Long Range Strike bomber to ultimately replace today’s nuclear- and conventionally armed strategic-range aircraft.


  5. Drew (History)

    If you want to follow up on that October 1967 Newsweek about Yaz and the pennant race, try: Bill Reynolds, “Lost Summer: The ’67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream”

    • krepon (History)

      There, but for the grace of Bob Gibson…

  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    Japan to return weapons-grade plutonium U.S. provided during Cold War
    FEB 26, 2014
    Japan plans to return, at the request of Washington, plutonium provided by the United States for research purposes during the Cold War, government sources said Tuesday.

    The government wants to be seen contributing to nuclear nonproliferation, the sources said.

    The Obama administration asked for the plutonium back as part of a drive to strengthen nuclear security.

    The two governments aim to work out the details by the third nuclear security summit, scheduled for March 24 and 25 in the Netherlands, the sources said.

  7. Mark Avrum Gubrud (History)

    A name to characterize the 2000s should reference its most salient feature, the GWOT and its attendant wars. So you could call it the Decade of Terrorism, except that it wasn’t really that. Decade of Terrorismism is more like it, or maybe just The Terror, which is sufficiently open to interpretation that one might read into it the bulk of the terror having been waged against the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and so many other countries, both by people there and by people in Washington, DC.

    Is The Terror over yet? We hope so, but other signs suggest it is only beginning. With regard to that, I think we are living in the Decade of Decision.

  8. j_kies (History)

    The decade of over-reaction, the decade of missing thought, ‘the noughts’

    Responding to the gut level immediacy of 9/11 with our reactive retail killing of the Wahhabi Islamists with regime change in Afghanistan and the subsequent unforced error of invading Iraq to later offer it up to Shiites unfriendly to American interests. Huge increases in ‘defense’ and ‘intelligence’ spending without rationale tied to real defense or intelligence purposes. Despite all these issues the absolute rate of slaughter did not stand out as compared to most of the 20th century and the existential nuclear apocalypse is less immediate than times before 1991.

  9. krepon (History)

    How about the Decade of Polarity?

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    —How about “The Decade all that spending on computers caught up with the institutions that made them?”

    —The NSA “Roadrunner” super computer was the fastest in the world in 2008. They turned it off as old fashioned, in 2013, after five years.

  11. krepon (History)

    Another try: The Age of Unraveling