Lies and Lethargies

A couple of lines from Auden’s The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (W.H. Auden: Critical Editions) have been sticking with me: “Lies and lethargies police the world / In its periods of peace.”

Start with the cynical substance of the lines. Lies and lethargies don’t corrupt or ruin the world. They instead keep the world orderly. If everyone knew the truth, and everyone acted on the truth, the world would apparently be in chaos. We need those uniformed lies and lethargies with their authoritative badges to keep us in line. What are we to think of the second line? Are there fewer lies during war? Perhaps not, but at least lethargy goes by the way side. Is that an improvement? Does war at least give us enough energy to act?

Then there’s the hint of archaic alliterative verse. Two L-words in the first line, but the P-alliteration of the second line already begins in the first line. It’s thoroughly modern verse, but is haunted by ancient rhythms.

Then there are the internal rhymes of the first line: -ies, -ies, -ice. And all those anticipate the final word of the couplet, especially the rhyme of “police” and “peace.” The internal rhymes give the lines a feeling of epigrammatical finality.

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