Learn more about Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973, ) who signed his works W. H. Auden, was an Anglo-American poet, regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His work is noted for its stylistic and technical achievements, its engagement with moral and political issues, and its variety of tone, form and content. The central themes of his poetry are love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.
Auden grew up in Birmingham in a professional middle-class family and read English literature at Christ Church, Oxford. His early poems, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, alternated between telegraphic modern styles and fluent traditional ones, were written in an intense and dramatic tone, and established his reputation as a left-wing political poet and prophet. He became uncomfortable in this role in the later 1930s, and abandoned it after he moved to the United States in 1939. His poems in the 1940s explored religious and ethical themes in a less dramatic manner than his earlier works, but still combined new forms devised by Auden himself with traditional forms and styles. In the 1950s and 1960s many of his poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions, and he took a particular interest in writing opera librettos, a form ideally suited to direct expression of strong feelings.
He was also a prolific writer of prose essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological and religious subjects, and he worked at various times on documentary films, poetic plays and other forms of performance. Throughout his career he was both controversial and influential. After his death, some of his poems, notably "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks") and "September 1, 1939", became widely known through films, broadcasts and popular media.
In 1908 his family moved to Harborne, Birmingham, where his father had been appointed the School Medical Officer and Lecturer (later Professor) of Public Health; Auden's lifelong psychoanalytic interests began in his father's library. From the age of eight he attended boarding schools, returning home for holidays.
From the ages six to twelve, "I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry - lead mining". His visits to the Pennine landscape and its declining lead-mining industry figure in many of his poems; the remote decaying mining village of Rookhope was for him a "sacred landscape", evoked in a late poem, "Amor Loci".
Until he was fifteen he expected to become a mining engineer, but his "passion for words" had already begun. He wrote later: "words so excite me that a pornographic story, for example, excites me sexually more than a living person can do".
In 1925 he went to Christ Church, Oxford, with a scholarship in biology, but he switched to English by his second year. Friends he met at Oxford included Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender; these four were commonly though misleadingly identified in the 1930s as the "Auden Group" for their shared (but not identical) left-wing views. Auden left Oxford in 1928 with a third-class degree.
He was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood in 1925; for the next few years Isherwood was his literary mentor to whom he sent poems for comments and criticism. Auden probably fell in love with Isherwood (who was unaware of the intensity of Auden's feelings) and in the 1930s they maintained a sexual friendship in intervals between their relations with others. In 1935-39 they collaborated on three plays and a travel book.
From his Oxford years onward, his friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely. In groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way; in more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome. He was punctual in his habits, and obsessive about meeting deadlines, while choosing to live amidst physical disorder.
On returning to Britain in 1929, he worked briefly as a tutor. In 1930 his first published book, Poems (1930), was accepted by T. S. Eliot for Faber and Faber; the firm also published all his later books. In 1930 he began five years as a schoolmaster in boys' schools: two years at the Larchfield Academy, in Helensburgh, Scotland, then three years at the The Downs School, in the Malvern Hills, where he was a much-loved teacher. At the Downs, in June 1933, he experienced what he later described as a "Vision of Agape," when, while sitting with three fellow-teachers at the school, he suddenly found that he loved them for themselves, that their existence had infinite value for him; this experience, he said, later influenced his decision to return to the Anglican Church in 1940.
During these years, Auden's erotic interests focused, as he later said, on an idealized "Alter Ego rather than on individual persons. His relations (and his unsuccessful courtships) tended to be unequal either in age or intelligence; his sexual relations were transient, although some evolved into long friendships. He contrasted these relations with what he later regarded as the "marriage" (his word) of equals that he began with Chester Kallman in 1939 (see below), based on the unique individuality of both partners.
From 1935 until he left Britain early in 1939, Auden worked as freelance reviewer, essayist, and lecturer, first with the G.P.O. Film Unit, a documentary film-making branch of the post office, headed by John Grierson. Through his work for the Film Unit in 1935 he met and collaborated with Benjamin Britten, with whom he also worked on plays, song cycles, and a libretto. Auden's plays in the 1930s were performed by the Group Theatre, in productions that he supervised to varying degrees.
His work now reflected his belief that any good artist must be "more than a bit of a reporting journalist". In 1936 he spent three months in Iceland, where he gathered material for a travel book Letters from Iceland (1937), written in collaboration with Louis MacNeice. In 1937 he went to Spain intending to drive an ambulance for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, but was put to work broadcasting propaganda, a job he left in order to visit the front. His seven-week visit to Spain affected him deeply, and his social views grew more complex as he found political realities to be more ambiguous and troubling than he had imagined. Again attempting to combine reportage and art, he and Isherwood spent six months in 1938 visiting the Sino-Japanese War, working on their book Journey to a War (1939). On their way back to England they stayed briefly in New York and decided to move to the United States. Auden spent the autumn of 1938 partly in England, partly in Brussels.
Many of his poems during the 1930s and afterward were inspired by unconsummated love, and in the 1950s he summarized his emotional life in a famous couplet: "If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me" ("The More Loving One"). He had a gift for friendship and, starting in the late 1930s, a strong wish for the stability of marriage; in a letter to his friend James Stern he called marriage "the only subject". Throughout his life, he performed charitable acts, sometimes in public, as in his marriage of convenience to Erika Mann in 1935 that gave her a British passport with which to escape the Nazis, but, especially in later years, usually in private, and he was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed (as when his gift to his friend Dorothy Day for the Catholic Worker movement was reported on the front page of The New York Times in 1956).
In 1940-41, Auden lived in a house in Brooklyn Heights which he shared with Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, and others, and which became a famous center of artistic life. In 1940, he joined the Episcopal Church, returning to the Anglican Communion he had abandoned at thirteen. His reconversion was influenced partly by what he called the "sainthood" of Charles Williams, whom he had met in 1937, partly by reading Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr; his existential, this-worldly Christianity became a central element in his life.
In 1941-42 he taught English at the University of Michigan. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942, but did not use it, choosing instead to teach at Swarthmore College in 1942-45. In the summer of 1945, after the end of World War II in Europe, he was in Germany with the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey, studying the effects of Allied bombing on German morale, an experience that affected his postwar work as his visit to Spain had affected him earlier. On his return, he settled in Manhattan, working as a freelance writer and as a visiting professor at Bennington, Smith, and other American colleges. In 1946 he became a naturalized citizen of the US.
His theology in his later years evolved from a highly inward and psychologically oriented Protestantism in the early 1940s to a more Roman 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 rejected "childish" conceptions of God for an adult religion that focused on the significance of human suffering.
Auden began summering in Europe in 1948, first in Ischia, Italy, where he rented a house, then, starting 1958, in Kirchstetten, Austria where he bought a farmhouse, and, he said, shed tears of joy at owning a home for the first time.
In 1951, shortly before the two British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the USSR, Burgess attempted to phone Auden to arrange a vacation visit to Ischia that he had earlier discussed with Auden; Auden never returned the call and had no further contact with either spy, but a media frenzy ensued in which his name was mistakenly associated with their escape. The frenzy was repeated when the MI5 documents on the incident were released in 2007.
In 1956-61, Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University where he was required to give three lectures each year. This fairly light workload allowed him to continue to winter in New York, where he now lived on St. Mark's Place, and to summer in Europe, spending only three weeks each year lecturing in Oxford. He now earned his income mostly by readings and lecture tours, and by writing for The New Yorker and other magazines.
During his last years, his conversation became repetitive, to the disappointment of friends who had known him earlier as a witty and wide-ranging conversationalist. In 1972, he moved his winter home from New York to Oxford, where his old college, Christ Church, offered him a cottage, but he continued to summer in Austria. He died in Vienna in 1973 and was buried in Kirchstetten.
He also wrote more than four hundred essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion, and many other subjects. He collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood and on opera libretti with Chester Kallman, worked with a group of artists and filmmakers on documentary films in the 1930s and with the New York Pro Musica early music group in the 1950s and 1960s. About collaboration he wrote in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had".
Auden controversially rewrote or discarded some of his most famous poems when he prepared his later collected editions. He wrote that he rejected poems that he found "boring" or "dishonest" in the sense that they expressed views that he had never held but had used only because he felt they would be rhetorically effective. His rejected poems include "Spain" and "September 1, 1939". His literary executor, Edward Mendelson, argues in his introduction to Auden's Selected Poems that Auden's practice reflected his sense of the persuasive power of poetry and his reluctance to misuse it. (Selected Poems includes some poems that Auden rejected and early texts of poems that he revised.)
In 1928 he wrote his first dramatic work, Paid on Both Sides, subtitled "A Charade," which combined style and content from the Icelandic sagas with jokes from English school life. This mixture of tragedy and farce, with a dream play-within-the-play, introduced the mixed styles and content of much of his later work. This drama and thirty short poems appeared in his first published book Poems (1930, 2nd edition with seven poems replaced, 1933); the poems in the book were mostly lyrical and gnomic mediations on hoped-for or unconsummated love and on themes of personal, social, and seasonal renewal; among these poems were "It was Easter as I walked," "Doom is dark," "Sir, no man's enemy," and "This lunar beauty."
A recurrent theme in these early poems is the effect of "family ghosts", Auden's term for the powerful, unseen psychological effects of preceding generations on any individual life (and the title of a poem). A parallel theme, present throughout his work, is the contrast between biological evolution (unchosen and involuntary) and the psychological evolution of cultures and individuals (voluntary and deliberate even in its subconscious aspects).
During these years, much of his work expressed left-wing views, and he became widely known as a political poet, although his work was more politically ambivalent than many reviewers recognized. He generally wrote about revolutionary change in terms of a "change of heart", a transformation of a society from a closed-off psychology of fear to an open psychology of love. His verse drama The Dance of Death (1933) was a political extravaganza in the style of a theatrical revue, which Auden later called "a nihilistic leg-pull". His next play The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), written in collaboration with Isherwood, was similarly a quasi-Marxist updating of Gilbert and Sullivan in which the general idea of social transformation was more prominent than any specific political action or structure.
The Ascent of F6 (1937), another play written with Isherwood, was partly an anti-imperialist satire, partly (in the character of the self-destroying climber Michael Ransom) an examination of Auden's own motives in taking on a public role as a political poet. This play included the first version of \"Funeral Blues\" (\"Stop all the clocks\"), written as a satiric eulogy for a politician; Auden later rewrote the poem as a \"Cabaret Song\" about lost love (written to be sung by the soprano Hedli Anderson for whom he wrote many lyrics in the 1930s). In 1935, he worked briefly on documentary films with the G.P.O. Film Unit, writing his famous verse commentary for Night Mail and lyrics for other films that were among his attempts in the 1930s to create a widely-accessible, socially-conscious art.
Auden was now arguing that an artist should be a kind of journalist, and he put this view into practice in Letters from Iceland (1937) a travel book in prose and verse written with Louis MacNeice, which included his long social, literary, and autobiographical commentary \"Letter to Lord Byron\". In 1937, after observing the Spanish Civil War he wrote a politically-engaged pamphlet poem Spain (1937); he later discarded it from his collected works. Journey to a War (1939) a travel book in prose and verse, was written with Isherwood after their visit to the Sino-Japanese War. Auden's last collaboration with Isherwood was their third play, On the Frontier, an anti-war satire written in Broadway and West End styles.
Auden's themes in his shorter poems now included the fragility and transience of personal love (\"Danse Macabre\", \"The Dream\", \"Lay your sleeping head\"), a theme he treated with ironic wit in his \"Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson\" (which included \"O Tell Me the Truth About Love\" and the revised version of \"Funeral Blues\"), and also the corrupting effect of public and official culture on individual lives (\"Casino\", \"School Children\", \"Dover\"). In 1938 he wrote a series of dark, ironic ballads about individual failure (\"Miss Gee\", \"James Honeyman\", \"Victor\"). All these appeared in his next book of verse, Another Time (1940), together with other famous poems such as \"Dover\", \"As He Is\", and \"Musée des Beaux Arts\" (all written before he moved to America in 1939), and \"In Memory of W. B. Yeats\", \"The Unknown Citizen\", \"Law Like Love\", \"September 1, 1939\", and \"In Memory of Sigmund Freud\" (written in America). The elegies for Yeats and Freud are partly statements of Auden's anti-heroic theme, in which great deeds are performed, not by unique geniuses whom others cannot hope to imitate, but by otherwise ordinary individuals who were \"silly like us\" (Yeats) or of whom it could be said \"he wasn't clever at all\" (Freud), and who became teachers of others, not awe-inspiring heroes.
His recurring themes in this period included the artist's temptation to use other persons as material for his art rather than valuing them for themselves (\\"Prospero to Ariel\\") and the corresponding moral obligation to make and keep commitments while recognizing the temptation to break them (\\"In Sickness and Health\\"). From 1942 through 1947 he worked mostly on three long poems in dramatic form, each differing from the others in form and content: \\"For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio\\", \\"The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest\\" (both published in For the Time Being, 1944), and The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (published separately 1947). The first two, with Auden's other new poems from 1940-44, were included in his first collected edition, The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), with most of his earlier poems, many in revised versions.
Auden's first separate prose book was The Enchafèd Flood: The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (1950), based on a series of lectures on the image of the sea in romantic literature. Between 1949 and 1954 he worked on a sequence of seven Good Friday poems, "Horae Canonicae", an encyclopedic survey of geological, biological, cultural, and personal history, focused on the irreversible act of murder; the poem was also a study in cyclical and linear ideas of time. While writing this, he also wrote a sequence of seven poems about man's relation to nature, "Bucolics". Both sequences appeared in his next book, The Shield of Achilles (1955), with other short poems, including the book's title poem, "Fleet Visit", and "Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier".
Extending the themes of "Horae Canonicae", in 1955–56 he wrote a group of poems about "history," the term he used to mean the set of unique events made by human choices, as opposed to "nature," the set of involuntary events created by natural processes, statistics, and anonymous forces such as crowds. These poems included "T the Great", "The Maker", and the title poem of his next collection Homage to Clio (1960).
His prose book The Dyer's Hand (1962) gathered many of the lectures he gave in Oxford as Professor of Poetry in 1956-61, together with revised versions of essays and notes written since the mid-1940s.
While translating the haiku and other verse in Dag Hammarskjöld's Markings, Auden began using haiku for many of his poems. A sequence of fifteen poems about his house in Austria, "Thanksgiving for a Habitat", appeared in About the House (1965), with other poems that included his reflections on his lecture tours, "On the Circuit". In the late 1960s he wrote some of his most vigorous poems, including "River Profile" and two poems that looked back over his life, "Prologue at Sixty" and "Forty Years On". All these appeared in City Without Walls (1969). His lifelong passion for Icelandic legend culminated in his verse translation of The Elder Edda (1969).
He was commissioned in 1963 to write lyrics for the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, but the producer rejected them as insufficiently romantic. A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970) was a kind of self-portrait made up of favorite quotations with commentary, arranged in alphabetical order by subject. His last prose book was a selection of essays and reviews, Forewords and Afterwords (1973).
His last books of verse, Epistle to a Godson (1972) and the unfinished Thank You, Fog (1974) include reflective poems about language ("Natural Linguistics") and about his own aging ("A New Year Greeting", "Talking to Myself", "A Lullaby" ["The din of work is subdued"]). His last completed poem, in haiku form, was "Archeology", about ritual and timelessness, two recurring themes in his later years.
In his enfant terrible stage in the 1930s he was both praised and dismissed as a progressive and accessible voice, in contrast to the politically nostalgic and poetically obscure voice of T. S. Eliot. His departure for America in 1939 was hotly debated in Britain (once even in Parliament), with some critics treating it as a betrayal, and the role of influential young poet passed to Dylan Thomas, although defenders such as Geoffrey Grigson, in an introduction to a 1949 anthology of modern poetry, wrote that Auden "arches over all". His stature was suggested by book titles such as Auden and After by Francis Scarfe (1942) and The Auden Generation by Samuel Hynes (1972).
In the US, starting in the late 1930s, the detached, ironic tone of Auden’s regular stanzas set the style for a whole generation of poets; John Ashbery recalled that in the 1940s Auden "was the modern poet". His manner was so pervasive in American poetry that the ecstatic style of the Beat Generation was partly a reaction against his influence. In the 1950s and 1960s, some writers (notably Philip Larkin and Randall Jarrell) lamented that Auden’s work had declined from its earlier promise.
By the time of Auden’s death in 1973 he had attained the status of a respected elder statesman. The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that "by the time of Eliot's death in 1965 ... a convincing case could be made for the assertion that Auden was indeed Eliot's successor, as Eliot had inherited sole claim to supremacy when Yeats died in 1939". With some exceptions, British critics tended to treat his early work as his best, while American critics tended to favor his middle and later work. Unlike other modern poets, his reputation did not decline after his death, and Joseph Brodsky wrote that his was "the greatest mind of the twentieth century".
Auden’s popularity and familiarity suddenly increased after his "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks") was read aloud in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); subsequently, a pamphlet edition of ten of his poems, Tell Me the Truth About Love, sold more than 275,000 copies. After September 11, 2001, his poem "September 1, 1939" was widely circulated and frequently broadcast. Public readings and broadcast tributes in the UK and US in 2007 marked his centenary year.
In the list below, works reprinted in the Complete Works of W. H. Auden are indicated by footnote references.