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Wystan Hugh Auden
1907 - 1973

The English-born American poet W. H. Auden was one of the pre-eminent poets of the twentieth century. His works centre on moral issues and evidence strong political, social, and psychological orientations.


In the 1930s W. H. Auden became famous when he was described by literary journalists as the leader of the so-called "Oxford Group," a circle of young English poets influenced by literary Modernism, in particular by the aesthetic principles espoused by T. S. Eliot. Rejecting the traditional poetic forms favoured by their Victorian predecessors, the Modernist poets favored concrete imagery and free verse. In his work, Auden applied conceptual and scientific knowledge to traditional verse forms and metrical patterns while assimilating the industrial countryside of his youth.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. His father was the medical officer of the city of Birmingham and a psychologist. His mother was a devout Anglican, and the combination of religious and scientific or analytic themes are implicit throughout Auden's work. He was educated at St. Edmund's preparatory school, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who later gained a wide reputation as a novelist. At Oxford University, fellow undergraduates were Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, who, with Auden, formed the collective variously labelled the Oxford Group or the "Auden Generation."

At school Auden was interested in science, and at Oxford, where he studied English, his chief interest was Anglo-Saxon. He disliked the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats, whom he was inclined to refer to as "Kelly and Sheets." This break with the English post-Romantic tradition was important for his contemporaries. It is perhaps still more important that Auden was the first poet in English to use the imagery (and sometimes the terminology) of clinical psychoanalysis.

Early Travels and Publications

A small volume of his poems was privately printed by Stephen Spender in 1928, while Auden was still an undergraduate. Poems was published a year later by Faber and Faber (of which T. S. Eliot was a director). The Orators (1932), a volume consisting of odes, parodies of school speeches and sermons, and the strange, almost surreal "Journal of an Airman" provided a barrage of satire against England, "this country of ours where no one is well." It set the mood for a generation of public school boys who were in revolt against the empire of England and fox hunting.

When he had completed school, Auden traveled in Germany. In 1937 he went with MacNeice to Iceland and in 1938 with Isherwood to China. Literary results of these journeys were Letters from Iceland (1937) and Journey to a War (1939), the first written with MacNeice and the second with Isherwood. Auden also wrote several plays in collaboration, notably 1935's The Dog beneath the Skin (another satire on England) and The Ascent of F 6 (1931). More than a decade later Auden again worked in collaboration - this time with Chester Kallmann on the librettos for several operas, of which the most important was Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951).

In 1939 Auden took up residence in the United States, supporting himself by teaching at various universities. In 1946 he became a U.S. citizen, by which time his literary career had become a series of well-recognized successes. He received the Pulitzer Prize and Bollingen Award and enjoyed his standing as one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University. In his inaugural address, "Making Knowing and Judging," he explored ideas about his vocation as a poet.

Poetic Themes and Techniques

Auden's early poetry, influenced by his interest in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in psychoanalysis, was sometimes riddle-like, sometimes jargonish and clinical. It also contained private references inaccessible to most readers. At the same time it had a clouded mysteriousness that would disappear in his later poetry. In the 1930s his poetry ceased to be mystifying; still dealing with difficult ideas, however, it could at times remain abstruse. His underlying preoccupation was a search for interpretive systems of analytic thinking and faith. Clues to the earlier poetry are to be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. In the later poems (after "New Year Letter," in which he turns to Christianity), some clues can be traced in the works of Sóren Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other theologians.

Among Auden's highly regarded attributes was the ability to think symbolically and rationally at the same time, so that intellectual ideas were transformed into a uniquely personal, idiosyncratic, often witty imagistic idiom. He concretized ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the austere outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that is interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love" and "Look Stranger."

Often Auden's poetry may seem a rather marginal criticism of life and society written from the sidelines. Yet sometimes it moves to the centre of the time in history in which he and his contemporaries lived. In "The Shield of Achilles" he recreated the anguish of the modern world of totalitarian societies in a poem which holds one particular time in a mirror for all times. Auden was learned and intelligent, a virtuoso of form and technique. In his poetry he realized a lifelong search for a philosophical and religious position from which to analyze and comprehend the individual life in relation to society and to the human condition in general. He was able to express his scorn for authoritarian bureaucracy, his suspicion of depersonalized science, and his belief in a Christian God.

Later Works

In his final years, Auden wrote the volumes City without Walls, and Many Other Poems, (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). All three works are noted for their lexical range and humanitarian content. Auden's penchant for altering and discarding poems has prompted publication of several anthologies in the decades since his death, September 28, 1973, in Vienna, Austria. The multi-volume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989.


The English-born American writer Wystan Hugh Auden was one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Auden was born in York, the son of a physician. At first interested in science, he soon turned to poetry. In 1925 he entered Christ Church College, University of Oxford, where he became the centre of a group of young leftist writers who generally expressed a socialist viewpoint, while continuing the artistic revolution of such earlier writers as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. This group included the poets Louis MacNiece and Stephen Spender and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. After graduating in 1928, he spent five years as a schoolmaster in Scotland and England.

Auden's earliest works are startling in several ways. They contain unusual meters, words, and images, juxtapose industrial and natural landscapes, and mix the rhythms of poetry with those of jazz music. Some critics feel that Auden's first books, Poems (1930) and The Orators, an English Study (1932), contain some of his finest work. Poems focused on the breakdown of English capitalist society but also showed a deep concern with psychological problems. He subsequently wrote three verse plays with Isherwood: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F-6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1938). In the later poems of the 1930s, such as those in Look, Stranger! (1936) and Journey to a War (1939), his political and antiwar sentiments are expressed, but the poems lack some of the force of his earlier work. Another Time (1940) contains lighter and more romantic verse.

Auden lived in Germany, where he witnessed the rise of nazism, and during the Spanish Civil War he served as an ambulance driver. In 1936 he married Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann, to provide her with a British passport and enable her to leave Germany. In 1937 he received King George's Gold Medal for Poetry. Auden immigrated to the United States in 1939 (he became an American citizen in 1946) and at about the same time returned to the religion of his youth, Anglicanism. His wide-ranging intellectual interests and his technical virtuosity in a variety of metrical forms are apparent in such works as The Double Man (1941), For the Time Being (1944), and the 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Anxiety (1947). These works also bear the stamp of his religious reaffirmation, although this is expressed by treating questions concerning existence rather than by discussing his own spiritual struggles and achievements. In 1945 he published The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, a widely read volume in which poems were so arranged as to defy chronology. In this volume, too, he revised many poems and omitted others, among them two of his most popular political poems. Many charged that Auden was censoring his early political self in a kind of purge. The poet, however, gave reasons of desire for technical correctness.

Nones (1951), The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), About the House (1965), and City without Walls (1969) added steadily to the store of his carefully made, playful or irreverent, and sometimes deceptively simple short poems. In 1954 he received the Bollingen Poetry Prize. From 1956 to 1961 he held the chair in poetry at Oxford. Critical essays published in The Enchafed Flood (1950), The Dyer's Hand (1962), and Forewords and Afterwords (1973) increased his reputation for catholicity of taste. He influenced a generation of new poets by teaching, reading his poems, lecturing in colleges and universities throughout the United States and England, and editing the Yale series of young poets' work.

In his later years Auden spent part of the year at his apartment in New York (he always considered himself not an American but a New Yorker) and part in Italy--later still, in Kirchstetten, Austria, where he owned a house memorialized in Thanksgiving for a Habitat (1965). He received the National Medal for Literature in 1967. With his close friend Chester Kallman he collaborated on opera libretti, including Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951). He returned to Oxford as an honorary fellow in 1972.

As a poet, Auden bore some resemblance to T. S. Eliot. Like him, he had a cool, ironic wit, yet was deeply religious. Possessed of probing psychological insight, Auden also had a supremely lyric gift. Auden's influence on the succeeding generation of poets was immense. Many critics consider Auden a master of verse; his intellectual rigor and social conscience combined with his fluid mix of styles and expert craftsmanship make him a paragon of modern poetics.


The English-born American poet W. H. Auden was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His works centre on moral issues and show strong political, social, and psychological (involving the study of the mind) orientations.
Early life

Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. He was the last of three sons born to George and Constance Auden. His father was the medical officer for the city of Birmingham, England, and a psychologist (a person who studies the mind). His mother was a devoted Anglican (a member of the Church of England). The combination of religious and scientific themes are buried throughout Auden's work. The industrial area where he grew up shows up often in his adult poetry. Like many young boys in his city, he was interested in machines, mining, and metals and wanted to be a mining engineer. With both grandfathers being Anglican ministers, Auden once commented that if he had not become a poet he might have ended up as an Anglican bishop.

Another influential childhood experience was his time served as a choirboy. He states in his autobiographical sketch, A Certain World, "it was there that I acquired a sensitivity to language which I could not have acquired in any other way." He was educated at St. Edmund's preparatory school and at Oxford University. At Oxford fellow undergraduates Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, with Auden, formed the group called the Oxford Group or the "Auden Generation."

At school Auden was interested in science, but at Oxford he studied English. He disliked the Romantic (nineteenth-century emotional style of writing) poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and John Keats (1795–1821), whom he was inclined to refer to as "Kelly and Sheets." This break with the English post-Romantic tradition was important for his contemporaries. It is perhaps still more important that Auden was the first poet in English to use the imagery (language that creates a specific image) and sometimes the terminology (terms that are specific to a field) of clinical psychoanalysis (analysis and treatment of emotional disorders).

Early publications and travels

In 1928, when Auden was twenty-one, a small volume of his poems was privately printed by a school friend. Poems was published a year later by Faber and Faber (of which T. S. Eliot [1888–1965] was a director). The Orators (1932) was a volume consisting of odes (poems focused on extreme feelings), parodies (take offs) of school speeches, and sermons that criticized England. It set the mood for a generation of public school boys who were in revolt against the empire of Great Britain and fox hunting.

After completing school Auden travelled with friends in Germany, Iceland, and China. He then worked with them to write Letters from Iceland (1937) and Journey To A War (1939). In 1939 Auden took up residence in the United States, supporting himself by teaching at various universities. In 1946 he became a U.S. citizen, by which time his literary career had become a series of well-recognized successes. He received the Pulitzer Prize and the Bollingen Award and enjoyed his standing as one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Poetic themes and techniques

Auden's early poetry, influenced by his interest in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in psychoanalysis, was sometimes riddle-like and clinical. It also contained private references that most readers did not understand. At the same time it had a mystery that would disappear in his later poetry.

In the 1930s W. H. Auden became famous when literary journalists described him as the leader of the so-called "Oxford Group," a circle of young English poets influenced by literary Modernism, in particular by the artistic principles adopted by T. S. Eliot. Rejecting the traditional poetic forms favoured by their Victorian predecessors, the Modernist poets favoured concrete imagery and free verse. In his work Auden applied concepts and science to traditional verse forms and metrical (having a measured rhythm) patterns while including the industrial countryside of his youth. Coming to the United States was seen by some as the start of a new phase of his work. World War II (1939–45; a war in which France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan) had soured him to politics and warmed him to morality and spirituality.

Among Auden's highly regarded skills was the ability to think in terms of both symbols and reality at the same time, so that intellectual ideas were transformed. He rooted ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the stern and cold outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that was interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love" and "Look Stranger." His literary contributions include librettos (opera texts) and motion picture documentaries. He worked with Chester Kallmann on the librettos, the most important of which was T. S. Eliot's The Rakes Progress (1951).

Auden was well educated and intelligent, a genius of form and technique. In his poetry he realized a lifelong search for a philosophical and religious position from which to analyze and comprehend the individual life in relation to society and to the human condition in general. He was able to express his dislike for a difficult government, his suspicion of science without human feeling, and his belief in a Christian God.
Later works

In his final years Auden wrote the volumes City without Walls, and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974), which was published posthumously (after his death). All three works are noted for their lexical (word and vocabulary relationship) range and humanitarian (compassionate) content. Auden's tendency to alter and discard poems has prompted publication of several anthologies (collected works) in the decades since his death on September 28, 1973, in Vienna, Austria. The multivolume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989. Auden is now considered one of the greatest poets of the English language.


Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) (1907–73), was born on 21 February 1907 into a provincial English world still Tennysonian in outlook. He was the third son of a gentle, cultivated family doctor and a domineering former nurse who had once wanted to go to Africa as a missionary. Auden was by nature a versatile, polymorphous writer, one who felt that, amongst other things, poetry was ‘a game of knowledge’. The odd geometry of his parents’ marriage seems to have added an intellectual openness and restlessness, even as it left him personally extremely anxious. He boarded at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, then in 1925 went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he soon switched from reading biology to English.

For a collected edition made late in his career, Auden divided his poetry into broad phases; each constituted, he felt, a ‘chapter’. The first stretches from 1927 until the end of 1932, and in it Auden emerges from the sacred ground of English Romanticism, the Lake District. The landscape of these guarded, archaic-sounding poems is the same as Wordsworth’s, though in Auden the area is desolate and the solitary is numbed by feelings of intense isolation and disappointment. Even the shared resources of English are denied: conjunctions and pronouns have flaked away, leaving a language of glittering, compacted hardness.

A pamphlet, Poems, was cranked out on a hand-press by his friend Stephen Spender in 1928. The same year Auden left Oxford and spent the next nine months in Germany (mainly Berlin), writing, reading widely in psychology, and brothel-crawling. At a moment when Europe’s foundations were starting to shudder, he also became concerned about political issues. In September 1930, a few months after Auden had returned to England, T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber published Auden’s first full-length book, again austerely called Poems (London, 1930). Meanwhile, Auden had gone off to teach at a seedy Scottish prep-school.

In Poems (1930) there is a dark, autistic vein of love poetry; there is also a kind of admonitory satire, castigating Britain’s spiritual torpor. His next book, The Orators (London, 1932), is the culmination of both these tendencies and it reads like a surrealist explosion of language. There are hints of a narrative involving a failed insurrection against the governing class, but the real subject of The Orators is its own bristling verbal energy.

Despite the obscurity of his early work, Auden was hailed by critics as the leader of a group of young, left-wing, writers that included Louis MacNeice, Spender, and C. Day Lewis. Backed by Eliot, and fuelled by a growing literary confidence, Auden seems to have felt for a while that he could have a role to play in the country’s renewal. This belief soon evaporated, and by the end of the decade he was to feel trapped by his sense of responsibility. None the less, the revolutionary ‘movement’ was an important means of self-definition for these poets as they were crawling out of the shadow of Yeats and Eliot. It also gave Auden a clearly defined audience to write for and a reason to try and forge an accessible public style.

He soon came to see The Orators as a botched effort, and his work, which shows a strong evolutionary urge, began to move forward. In the autumn of 1932 he started teaching at the Downs School in Herefordshire. In that mellow world his poetry opened like a bud, becoming more expansive and much richer in surface detail. This is the start of the second ‘chapter’, the phase when Auden, drawing on Marx and Freud, was able to make a brilliant stream of connections between individual guilts and pleasures and the crisis that seemed to be eating away at European civilization. Simultaneously, his interest in the possibilities of verse-forms burst out in a profusion of beautifully adroit sonnets, sestinas, and ballads.

Auden was a homosexual, but in 1935 he married Thomas Mann’s daughter, Erika, a fugitive from Nazi persecution, in order to get her an English passport. The same year he left the Downs. In search of a wider field of vision he joined a documentary film company, where he worked briefly and unhappily. For six years after that he was a free-lance writer. A second collection of lyrics, Look, Stranger! (London, 1936)—the American edition is On This Island (New York, 1937)—extended his reputation.

So did his plays. Auden had composed a long charade, ‘Paid On Both Sides’ (1928), and a polemical ‘masque’, The Dance of Death (London, 1933). In the later Thirties he and Christopher Isherwood turned out a string of dramas: The Dog Beneath the Skin (London and New York, 1935), The Ascent of F6 (London, 1936; New York, 1937), and On the Frontier (London, 1938; New York, 1939). Although none of the plays is a fully integrated work, they contain flashes of great poetry. The choruses in The Dog Beneath the Skin offer huge panoramas of English life, and F6 contains an allegory of Auden’s early fantasy of himself as a healer and redeemer of society. He later said it was while working on the play that he realized that, for the sake of his artistic growth, he would have to leave England.

Auden’s pre-war years were a period of fertility in many media and of almost continuous wandering. In 1936 he went with MacNeice to Iceland (where he liked to believe his ancestors had come from), a trip that resulted in their Letters from Iceland (London and New York, 1937). The volume contains Auden’s masterpiece of autobiographical light verse, ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. Then, in January 1937, he went to observe the Spanish Civil War. Auden was never a member of the Communist Party, and he seems to have been shunted aside by the party bosses in Spain. Immediately after he returned, though, he wrote his most famous call to action, ‘Spain’, a poem full of local brilliance but one that cannot now be separated from knowledge of the Civil War’s tragically convoluted history. Auden hardly ever spoke about his experiences in Barcelona, but in the wake of the visit his poems darkened; many from the later Thirties are bleakly pessimistic, shielding themselves from the historical turmoil behind layers of stylization and irony. In early 1938, after he had hurriedly assembled his Oxford Book of Light Verse (London, 1938), Auden went abroad again, this time with Isherwood. They travelled to China to write about the Sino-Japanese War. Their book, Journey to a War (London and New York, 1939) became a parable about the difficulty of politically engaged writing: as Isherwood recounts it, they could never find any clearly drawn lines of battle in China. The problem is developed in the volume’s sonnet sequence ‘In Time of War’, which finds the war going on everywhere, all the time. The sonnets show an important broadening of Auden’s moral imagination, and throughout, Christian symbolism begins to bubble to the surface. On their voyage to England in mid-1938 Auden and Isherwood stopped off in New York. In January 1939 they went back there.

Going to America was another turning-point, and Auden began purging himself of a rhetoric that he felt had now been exhausted. The next phase of his career, initiated by a series of elegies and psychological portraits, is a period of much more intimate writing, concerned above all with subjectivity and loneliness. He had fallen in love with a younger American writer, Chester Kallman, and his happiness seems to have released a flood of other feelings, including what were only half-suppressed religious impulses. Another Time (New York and London, 1940) contains some of his best work, though, as the title indicates, the poems already seemed to him to belong in a vanished era. The book includes ‘September 1, 1939’, a lyric written the weekend war was declared, which tries to come to terms with the failure of the ‘clever hopes’ of a ‘low dishonest decade’ for social and personal renewal, and attempts a new, modestly heroic, role for the writer. Auden later came to dislike the sanctimoniousness of the piece.

The suggestions of religious and poetic conversion were strengthened in The Double Man (New York, 1941; published in London the same year under the title New Year Letter). Again admitting the failure of the utopian hopes of the Thirties, the volume’s main element, a long neo-Augustan verse epistle, is a dissection of man’s spiritual predicament and of the dualism in European secular thought which Auden believed had ultimately led to the catastrophe of war. It ends with a petition for aid from a mysterious—though still unnamed—power. Around October 1940, just after he finished the book, Auden began going to church.

Although he remained a Christian for the rest of his life, Auden never became pious or dogmatic, at least in his poems. In fact his faith seems to have increased his intellectual appetite. By inclination his mind was speculative, synthesizing, and eclectic—he was probably the only poet from the earlier half of the century well acquainted with the most advanced thought of the day—and Christianity allowed him to order this vast store of knowledge from philosophy, history, and theology into a harmonious and poetic world-view.

In the next few years he produced three more long poems. Each addresses the situation created by the ‘crisis’ of the war and of his conversion to Christianity, and each deals with its implications for his art. It is a retrenchment in the form of an enormous, almost forbidding, flowering: Auden’s developing artistry feeds off his complex feelings about literature, and particularly about his own early writing. Two of these poems, ‘For the Time Being’, a Christmas Oratorio dedicated to his mother who had died in 1941, and ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, a verse ‘commentary’ on The Tempest that Auden described as his ‘Ars Poetica’, were published together in For the Time Being (New York, 1944; London, 1945). His final long poem is The Age of Anxiety (New York, 1947; London, 1948). This ornate, rather Joycean work, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize, is an interior portrait of the average twentieth-century city-dweller, cast in the form of a meeting between four New Yorkers in a bar on All Souls’ Night, 1944.

Between 1939 and early 1947 much of his time was taken up with work on these long poems and earning a living as a university lecturer. In 1945, though, he spent a few months in Germany as an observer with the US Air Force’s ‘Strategic Bombing Survey’, studying the effects of aerial bombardment. Amongst the ruins of Darmstadt and Munich his interest in rebuilding cities took on renewed urgency, and some of his most ambitious works of the post-war years open out into an investigation of how to unify the contemporary world. The most important in this respect are the poem ‘Memorial for the City’ (1949), and a series of anti-Romantic lectures, The Enchafèd Flood. (New York, 1950; London, 1951).

In 1946 Auden became a US citizen. The following year was one of artistic uncertainty, a time when he was again casting around for a new literary direction. Once more a fresh ‘chapter’ began with a change of air. From 1948 until 1957 Auden summered—and wrote most of his poetry—on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. This period, during which Auden became the first truly rootless, international poet since Byron, was inaugurated by the elegiac syllabics of ‘In Praise of Limestone’. The poem appeared in the transitional Nones (New York, 1951; London, 1952). The Mediterranean breathed a restrained, ‘classical’ feeling into Auden’s work, and renewed his interest in the natural world and in the great movements of human history. The poems are more relaxed, but there is no slackening of artistic authority: his writing is both colloquial and gracefully elevated.

Auden believed that every poem should pose a new technical challenge for the poet. Thus, formal precision is balanced in the Fifties by a great deal of formal experimentation. The main thematic preoccupation is with the humanist task of defining Man through his relations with the world around him, and this culminates in a pair of major sequences from mid-decade: ‘Bucolics’ and ‘Horae Canonicae’. Both were published in The Shield of Achilles (New York and London, 1955), along with that book’s title poem, a meditation on the West’s culture of violence. The final pieces from the period were gathered into Homage to Clio (New York and London, 1960).

As his verse became more conversational, Auden found an outlet for his love of the grand style by writing opera libretti. (He had already worked on an operetta, Paul Bunyan, with Benjamin Britten in 1939–1941.) He and Kallman now produced the words for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951). Later they collaborated on Elegy for Young Lovers (1961) and The Bassarids (1966), both by Hans Werner Henze, and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1973) by Nicolas Nabokov.

Auden’s activities were not confined to poetry and opera, though. He also produced a torrent of critical prose and, with Norman Holmes Pearson, edited a five-volume anthology of verse, Poets of the English Language (New York, 1950; London, 1952). From 1956 to 1961 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, countering the authority of his lectures in the Sheldonian with a stream of baroque occasional verses and academic clerihews.

In 1958 he and Kallman moved again, this time to a summer cottage outside Vienna. Increasingly Auden’s poetry came under the influence of Herbert and Dryden, becoming dryer and more sober, though he set even the most apparently parochial of his poems in the sweep of long historical vistas. In fact, Auden was now beginning to produce a subtle, highly crafted poetry of old age, crankier, but also much more topical and political than it had been for several decades. He continued to seek out new formal challenges as well, and his long, chatty meditations are interspersed by showers of brilliantly sharp haiku diary-jottings. Both sides of this Goethean persona are represented in About the House (New York, 1965; London, 1966), which contains another major sequence, a poem for every room in his home, except—their relations continued to be complicated—Kallman’s bedroom.

Auden’s final books, City Without Walls (London, 1969; New York, 1970), Epistle to a Godson (New York and London, 1972), and the posthumous Thank You, Fog (London and New York, 1974) are the completion of the curve. Each of these books contains important poems: wry, ego-less musings in which extinction—feared, witnessed, and, occasionally, inflicted—is a frequent subject. Auden maintained that poets died once they had finished their historically appointed task. He spent the summer of 1973 in Austria and had planned to fly back to Oxford, where he now spent his winters. However, on 28 September 1973, in the middle of his last night in Vienna, he suffered a fatal heart-attack.

Since his death Auden’s polemical aura, whether in its early political or in its later High-Churchy form, has faded. He now seems an extraordinarily comprehensive and various writer; not one voice, but many. He was a master of the sparkling detail who also loved the vast, inhuman overviews of geography and history, a poet of great technical finesse who was ambivalent about the worth of literature, the century’s wittiest public versifier who could also sound the note of someone speaking out into an unpeopled silence. Only a major poet could have mingled and brought to perfection so many different styles, and only a great one could have been so ready to throw away his successes and move on.

The bulk of his work is part of its meaning, too. In historical terms, his importance lies in his reaction against Modernism’s tortured sense of stasis and restriction. Auden is a self-effacing poet: the nearest he got to an autobiography was A Certain World (New York and London, 1970), a vast collection of his favourite texts from other writers. Looked at from one point of view, this distaste for personal revelations and visionary extremity can be traced to the accidents of his psychological make-up. Looked at from another, though, his encyclopedic intellectual scope, his polyglot linguistic inclusiveness, and his insistence that all forms and subjects are still available to the contemporary poet, look like the dynamic of poetry working itself out through him. Auden is a powerful precursor figure for later poets, and his voice reverberates in writing as different as Lowell’s churning sonnets and Ashbery’s cool, loose webs.


Wystan Hugh Auden, known more commonly as W. H. Auden, was an English poet, often cited as one of the most influential of the 20th century. He spent the first part of his life in the United Kingdom, but emigrated to the United States in 1939, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1946.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York where his father Dr George Augustus Auden was a general practitioner. Auden was the third of three children, all sons; the oldest, George Bernard Auden, became a farmer; the middle brother John Bicknell Auden became a distinguished geologist. His mother was Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden; she had taken an Honours Degree in French at London University and was training to be a missionary nurse when she met Auden's father. Both of Auden's grandfathers were Church of English clergymen; the Auden family household was Anglo-Catholic in its religious life, i.e. a "High" form of Anglicanism with doctrine and ritual similar to that of Roman Catholicism. Auden traced much of his love of music and language to the church services of his childhood.

When W. H. Auden was a year and a half old, the family moved to Harborne, Birmingham, where his father had a joint appointment as the first School Medical Officer for Birmingham and Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham. From the age of eight Auden was sent away to boarding schools, but returned to Harborne for the holidays. During the 1914-18 War when his father was a physician in the Army, the family home was rented out and the family stayed in rented rooms or travelled during the holidays.

Auden's first school was St. Edmund's School, Hindhead, Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood. At 13 he went to Gresham's School in Norfolk. Until 1922 Auden expected to pursue a career as a mining engineer, and the abandoned lead mines of northern England were a "sacred landscape" for him. Then a school friend Robert Medley who was two years ahead of him, first suggested that he might write poetry. (In a list written in a notebook Auden used in 1947, Medley's name is the first on an untitled of his great loves; the others are [see below for details] Christopher Isherwood, Michael Yates, Chester Kallman, and Rhoda Jaffe; while writing the list Auden deleted other names, including William Coldstream, with whom he had no intimate relations). In the 1930s, when Medley and Rupert Doone founded the Group Theatre in London, Auden worked closely with them on productions of Auden's plays.

Auden's first poems appeared in 1923 in the school magazine The Gresham. Also in 1922, probably not long after he began writing poetry, Auden "discover[ed] that he has lost his faith" (Forewords and Afterwords, 1973, p. 517).

In 1925 Auden went to Christ Church, Oxford University, with a scholarship to study biology. He soon switched to Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), then to English. Nevill Coghill became his English tutor, and became a lifelong friend. Other friends whom Auden met at Oxford included Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender; among his teachers, he became friendly with the theologian Father Martin D'Arcy.

In a visit to London during Auden's first year at Oxford, another friend, A.S.T. Fisher, reintroduced him to Christopher Isherwood. Auden soon began using Isherwood as his literary mentor, and for the next few years his poems to Isherwood for comments and criticism. Auden seems to have fallen in love with Isherwood, who may not have been aware of the intensity of Auden's feelings, and the two maintained an intermittent sexual friendship until 1939, although each was more intent on relations with others.

Auden was chosen by the publisher Basil Blackwell as co-editor of the annual Oxford Poetry collection in 1926 and 1927. His poetry and eccentricities made him a minor legend among his fellow undergraduates. During the General Strike in 1926 he drove a car for the Trade Unions Congress although, by his own account, he was then uninterested in politics. He left Oxford in 1928, with only a third-class degree.

Auden's parents give him an allowance that lasted until his twenty-second birthday, so he did not begin working for a living immediately after Oxford. In the autumn of 1928 he left Britain for about nine months in Weimar Berlin, preferring to rebel against English repressiveness in Berlin, where homosexuality was generally tolerated, rather than in the heterosexual atmosphere of Paris. In Berlin, he finished his first dramatic work Paid on Both Sides, a mixture of an Icelandic saga, English mummers' play, and public-school humour.

In Berlin Auden met John Layard, an English anthropologist whose theories (based on the American schoolmaster and educational theorist Homer Lane) briefly influenced his work. Auden's first experience of political and economic unrest occurred in Berlin, where he also encountered the plays of Bertolt Brecht which influenced his own drama in the 1930s (he collaborated with Brecht in 1946 on an adaptation of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi). Isherwood visited Auden for a few weeks in 1929, and later returned to live in Berlin (where Auden sometimes visited him) during the 1930s.

On returning to Britain in 1929, Auden briefly worked as a tutor in London. In 1930 his first published book, Poems, was accepted by T. S. Eliot on behalf of Faber & Faber, who remained his publishers for the rest of his life. In 1930 he began a five-year career as a schoolmaster at boys' schools. He taught for two years at the Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh, Scotland, where he wrote most of his 1932 volume in prose and verse The Orators. Then he taught for three years at the Downs School, near Great Malvern, where he was happier than he had been at Larchfield, and where he wrote some of his best-known early poems, including "Out on the lawn I lie in bed" (a poem occasioned by the "Vision of Agape" in June 1933 that he later described in his 1964 preface to the anthology The Protestant Mystics, ed. by Anne Fremantle).

At the Downs School Auden was a much-loved eccentric and lively teacher. In 1935 he composed a "Revue" for which he wrote the words and music, with miscellaneous scenes performed by everyone at the school. Also at the Downs in 1935, he also met Benjamin Britten who visited the school with the filmmaker Basil Wright who hoped that Auden and Britten might both work for the General Post Office Film Unit, which made documentary films under the leadership of John Grierson. Britten and Auden collaborated on films, plays, and other works during the next seven years

Also the Downs School Auden met Michael Yates, a schoolboy with whom Auden fell in love. He took the youth (together with Peter Roger, a gardener at the Downs School with whom Auden was having an affair) on travels through Germany and Central Europe in the summer of 1934, when Yates was fifteen. In 1936 he discovered that Michael Yates was going on a school trip to Iceland and immediately booked passage there with his friend Louis MacNeice. After Yates' schoolmates returned, he stayed on with the two writers. Auden addressed a number of poems to Yates, although few can be identified definitively with him and not Benjamin Britten or others; two such poems are "A Bride in the Thirties" in 1936 (about the moral choices open to an as yet untouched beloved) and "Lullaby" ("Lay your sleeping head my love"), written in 1937, the first poem that records a sexual relation between them. Auden encouraged Yates's interest in theatre and design, and helped him to enter the Yale School of Drama despite his lack of a first degree. Much later at the age of eighty Yates revealed the nature of their relationship and confirmed that their love had been mutual, speaking about the "contentment of our lives together".[1] Their friendship was life-long and included Yates' wife Marny, who both visited Auden annually in Austria in the last years of his life.

In 1935 Auden made a marriage of convenience to Erika Mann, lesbian daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann, in order to provide her with a British passport to escape the Third Reich. They shook hands after the ceremony and saw each other again only a few times, mostly in America during the early 1940s, but they remained friendly and never bothered to divorce. He translated some of the songs in a satiric revue that she performed in Europe and America in the late 1930s, and at her death, she left a small sum of money to Auden, evidently in gratitude to him.

After Auden left the Downs School in 1935 he worked mostly a freelancer for the next three years, first with The G.P.O. (General Post Office) Film Unit, an organization within the post office that made documentary films under the leadership of John Grierson. Auden had begun writing for the Unit while still at the Downs, when the filmmaker Basil Wright brought Benjamin Britten to visit in the hope that Auden and Britten might write words and music for projected G.P.O. films such as Night Mail. Britten and Auden collaborated on films, plays, and other works during the next seven years. During his five months at the Film Unit (in Soho Square, London) Auden became friendly with the painter William Coldstream (and told friends that he fell platonically in love with Coldstream, who was resolutely heterosexual). His discussions with Coldstream (partly recorded in a verse letter to Coldstream in Letters from Iceland) helped to focus his view that art should be in part a kind of journalism, with a close focus on the events of the real world. Auden left the Film Unit largely because he felt uncomfortable with the way its propagandistic goals distorted its journalistic ones.

In 1936, after spending the summer in Iceland, he and MacNeice collaborated on Letters from Iceland, a spoof travel book comprised mostly of verse and prose letters to the dead Lord Byron and to living friends and relations such as Erika Mann, Christopher Isherwood, William Coldstream and R. H. S. Crossman. Also in 1936 Auden published his second collection of shorter poems, titled Look, Stranger! in its British edition (a title chosen by the publishers while Auden was in Iceland) and On this Island in its American edition (1937).

In early 1937 Auden spent about six weeks in Spain observing the Spanish Civil War, an experience that affected him deeply in ways that he did not write about until many years later. Intending to work as a medical aide, he was briefly put to work writing and broadcasting propaganda from Valencia for the Spanish Republic. Like George Orwell he found that the political realities in Spain were more complex and troubling than he imagined, and while he continued to support the Spanish Republic, he was troubled by the falsehoods in its propaganda and that of its apologists. On his return he published a pamphlet poem Spain in support of the Republic; his royalties went to Medical Aid for Spain, a charity associated with the Republican side.

In 1938 Auden and Christopher Isherwood spent six months traveling to and from China to report on the Sino-Japanese War; they stayed briefly in New York on their way back to Britain, and decided to move to the United States. The poems that Auden wrote during their travels and Isherwood's travel-diary (which included material originally written by Auden) were published in their book Journey to a War. Auden and Isherwood spent the autumn of 1938 partly in England, where he gave talks on the Sino-Japanese War, partly in Brussels, where Auden wrote "Mus e des Beaux Arts" and other poems.

Auden and Isherwood sailed from England to New York in January 1939, entering on temporary visas. This move away from Britain, nine months before the start of the Second World War, was seen by many in Britain as a betrayal and his reputation suffered as a result. Soon after arriving in New York, he gave a public reading with Isherwood and Louis MacNeice, at which he met the eighteen year old poet Chester Kallman for the first time. Kallman was to be his lover for the next two years and remained his companion for the rest of his life. The two shared houses and apartments for most of the period from 1953 until Auden's death in 1973, though the relationship was often troubled. In April 1939 Isherwood moved to California, and he and Auden saw each other only intermittently in later years.

In the autumn of 1939 Auden moved to an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and a year later to a house a few streets away which he shared with the magazine editor George Davis, Carson McCullers,, and others at varying times, including Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles, and Richard Wright.

In 1940, he returned to the Anglican faith of his childhood when he joined the Episcopal Church of the United States; he was influenced in this reconversion partly through reading Sóren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr. The process of his conversion is reflected in the changing attitudes found in the course of his long poem New Year Letter and other poems that he included in his book The Double Man in 1941 (title of the UK edition, New Year Letter).

His conversion influenced his work significantly as he explored the parable and Christian-allegorical readings of Shakespeare's plays. He regarded his sexuality as a sin that he would continue to commit, sometimes alluding to Augustine's prayer, "Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet." His theology in his later years evolved from a highly inward and psychologically-oriented Protestantism in the early 1940s through a more Catholic-oriented interest in the significance of the body and in collective ritual in the later 1940s and 1950s, and finally to the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which states that the belief in a purely supernatural God needed to be supplemented by the idea of a God who is experienced and manifested in the community of the church; Auden memorialized Bonhoeffer in his poem "Friday's Child".

In 1941-42 Auden taught English at the University of Michigan, then from 1942 through 1945 he taught at Swarthmore College. During these years he wrote two long poems in dramatic form: For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio and The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the summer of 1945 he was in Germany with the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, studying the effects of Allied bombing on German morale, an experience that left him shaken and about which he said little; the experience is reflected in his description of a wartorn city in his 1949 poem Memorial for the City.

After this, he lived mostly in New York, working as a free-lance writer and sometimes teaching courses as a visiting professor at American colleges. From 1944 through early 1947 he worked on the third and last of the three long poems in dramatic form that he wrote in the 1940s, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue.

Since the early 1940s Auden had been friendly with an American woman, Rhoda Jaffe, whom he met through Chester Kallman (she had been married to the writer Milton Klonsky, and was the last of the names on the list of great loves that he wrote in a notebook in 1947) with he had an intermittent and intense affair between 1945 and 1948.[2] She was the model for the character Rosetta in his long poem The Age of Anxiety.

Having spent the war years in the United States, Auden became a naturalized citizen in 1946, but returned to Europe during the summers starting in 1948, first in Italy then in Austria. From 1956 to 1961, Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, a post which required him to give only three lectures each year, so he spent only a few weeks at Oxford during his professorship. During the last year of his life he moved back from New York to Oxford, but again summered in Austria. His last public appearance was a reading at the Palais Palffy in Vienna on 28 September 1973; he died in Vienna in 1973 later the same night or early the next morning. He was buried near his summer home in Kirchstetten, Austria.

Auden thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, and the core of his work are the more than three hundred shorter poems and six longer poems that he chose to preserve in his later collected editions. His poetry was encyclopedic in scope and method, ranging in form from limericks and doggerel to a "Christmas Oratorio," a baroque eclogue; ranging in style from the clichés of pop songs to complex philosophical meditations, and ranging in subject-matter from the corns on his toes to the evolution of European society.

Auden wrote a considerable body of criticism and essays as well as co-authoring some drama with his friend Christopher Isherwood, but he is primarily known as a poet. Auden's work is characterised by exceptional variety, ranging from such rigorous traditional forms as the villanelle to original yet intricate forms, as well as the technical and verbal skills Auden displayed regardless of form. He was also partly responsible for re-introducing Anglo-Saxon accentual meter to English poetry, particularly during the 1930s. An area of controversy is the extent to which Auden reworked poems in successive publications, and dropped several of his best-known poems from collected editions because he no longer felt they were honest or accurate. His literary executor, Edward Mendelson, makes the case in his introduction to Auden's Selected Poems that this was in fact an affirmation of Auden's serious belief in the power and importance of poetry. The Selected Poems include some of the verse Auden rejected, and early versions of some which he later revised.

Auden always saw himself as a northerner and had a lifelong allegiance to the high limestone moorland of the North Pennines in Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria, in particular the poignant remains of the once-thriving lead mining industry. Auden called it his 'Mutterland' and his 'great good place'. Auden first went north (to Rookhope, County Durham) in 1919 and the Pennine landscapes excited a Wordsworthian visionary intensity in the twelve-year-old Wystan.

From 1921 Auden often stayed at his parents' cottage near Keswick in Cumbria, and some forty of the poems of the 1920s and 1930s and two influential plays Paid on Both Sides and The Dog Beneath the Skin are set in the North Pennines. The 1922 epiphany when Auden first became conscious of himself as a creative artist, occurred at Rookhope, when he dropped a stone down a flooded mineshaft.

In her introduction to Juvenilia: Poems 1922-1928 (1994), Katherine Bucknell traces themes relating to Auden's career and describes important aspects of his years at Gresham's School and Christ Church, Oxford, highlighting his instinct for experimentation and the testing of tradition.

References to the North Pennine area, and lead mining, occur constantly throughout Auden s later life in both prose and verse, most notably in the poems "New Year Letter" (1940); "The Age of Anxiety" (1947); "Amor Loci" (1965) and "Prologue at Sixty" (1967), wherein he calls himself a "Son of the North", as well as the magazine article, printed in Vogue in 1954, "England: Six Unexpected Days", a suggested driving itinerary mostly through the Pennine Dales.

Before he turned to Anglicanism Auden took an active interest in left-wing political controversies of his day and some of his greatest work reflects these concerns, such as "Spain", a poem on the Spanish Civil War, and "September 1, 1939", on the outbreak of World War II; both poems were later repudiated by Auden and excluded from his Collected Poems. Other memorable works include his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, the poems "The Unknown Citizen", "Mus e des Beaux-Arts", and poems on the deaths of William Butler Yeats and Sigmund Freud. Auden's ironic love poem "Funeral Blues" (originally a parody written for The Ascent of F6 with music by Benjamin Britten and sung by the soprano Hedli Anderson) was movingly read in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Before this, Auden's work was famously used in the GPO Film Unit's documentary film Night Mail, for which he wrote a verse commentary.

Auden was often thought of as part of a group of like-minded writers including Edward Upward, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice (with whom he collaborated on Letters from Iceland in 1936), Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender, although he himself stopped thinking of himself as part of a group after about the age of 24. He also collaborated closely with composers, writing an operetta libretto for Benjamin Britten, and, in collaboration with Chester Kallman, a libretto for Igor Stravinsky (The Rake's Progress) and two libretti for Hans Werner Henze. Also with Kallman, he provided translations of The Seven Deadly Sins, a ballet-chant by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, as well as of their full-length epic opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. (They also translated Mozart's The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni for the early television program "NBC Opera Theatre.")

Auden was a frequent correspondent and longtime friend (although they rarely saw each other) of J.R.R. Tolkien, who died three weeks before Auden. He was among the most prominent early critics to praise The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote in a 1971 letter, "I am... very deeply in Auden's debt in recent years. His support of me and interest in my work has been one of my chief encouragements. He gave me very good reviews, notices and letters from the beginning when it was by no means a popular thing to do. He was, in fact, sneered at for it."

His 1947 poem "The Age of Anxiety" provided the basis of a Symphony by Leonard Bernstein; the symphony includes no vocal music, but the mood and themes of the movements were suggested by the poem.

His poem "Hymn to the United Nations" was commissioned by the United Nations Secretary-General U Thant who also commissioned a setting for the poem by Pablo Casals; Casals conducted the first performance in 1971, but the work was never adopted officially by the United Nations.










This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008