Modernism In The Poem "The Age" by W. H. Auden

The poem “The Age” is a symbolic poem which seeks to invoke our views on modern time, the contemporary and contesting ideologies of our age. The poet puts across four topics in the four stanzas of the poem: the age as a beast that you must look in the face; the symbol of vertebration; the role of art, represented by the image of a flute’s binding qualities; and finally a parody of poetic rebirth, suggesting a beast broken and folded back on itself to such a degree that regeneration is actually impossible. In the first stanza, the poet tries to describe what life is.

Specifically, here the poet tries to describe two non-relational elements of defining the age as a consistent being. One, the century is an age, a period of history; the other it is given an organic consistency: it is a temporal, animalistic, and natural in essence. In this context here the beast-age paradoxically brings together an animality that is aware of its place in history, in which history is always related to far more than the individual. It is related to an animality far more powerful than that of the mere human animal. This means that the century may have to take individual lives to construct a sense of life as a whole. Animality exceeds historical time as it refers to pure biological existence, yet modern history wants to take hold of the animal within human life. The second aspect determines the first act of heroism in the poem: being face to face with the beast (“Who will be able To look into your pupils, And with his own blood glue together, The vertebrae of two centuries?”).

Here the poet tries to show that for one to see and understand your era, you must remove yourself from. This leads to the powerful counter-narrative to vitalism in the age and that of voluntarism will. While the predominant view of history at the time the poem was written is deterministic, 1923, the project of the new over-man is that history will be resisted and forced to behave. However, history is a huge and powerful beast hanging over us yet we must endure its leaden gaze, forcing it to serve us. The main problem of the poem, which is also the problem of the century, lies in the link between vitalism and voluntarism. Another point is as a nonrelational opposition, a differentiation of elements so different from each other that they share nothing in common, cannot be related meaning different beyond the concept of relational or comparative difference.

The three elements of this nonrelational opposition are vertebration, the break with the past, and the role of art. The poet has played with multiple ideas of vertebration: as heavy (‘A creature, as long as it has enough life / Must-carry its backbone’), as delicate (‘And a wave plays / With the invisible vertebration’), as broken (‘But your backbone is broken, / My beautiful, pitiful age’), and as folded back on itself (‘And with a senseless smile / You look backward, cruel and weak’). In this case, the vertebra of the century is an image of nothing other than its consistency as a set: what holds it together as a definable object in terms of its named events in the century.

This theme shows the problem of commencement and finality in an age whose subjective being is defined as a nonrelational opposition between vitalism and voluntarism. The fourth point is directly related to this, as it concerns the possibility, or not, of linking this age to the one which precedes it. (“And with a senseless smile You look backward, cruel and weak, Like a beast, once supple At the tracks of your own paws”). There are two contesting views are in play here. Either a twentieth century is a form of ‘ideal finality’ finishing off nineteenth-century ideas, or it is a ‘negative discontinuity’ renouncing everything that went before. One can see here that the logic dictates that the actual relation between the centuries is the nonrelation between vitalistic historical determinism and voluntaristic vital discontinuity.

This poem helps to define a period of based on the quality of self-consciousness about its own temporality at the time. This means that we simply can’t define modernism in terms of what it took itself to be, as its relation to time disallows the historical periodization rather we can define modernism in terms of its temporality of the now.

03 December 2019
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