Authors: W. H. Auden

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Pulitzer Prize–winning British American poet, playwright, and critic.

February 21, 1907

York, England

September 29, 1973

Vienna, Austria

Biography

One of the most important poets of the twentieth century, Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, in northern England, a rugged land of cliffs and escarpments that were to figure as part of his poetic landscape. His father was a prominent physician, his mother a former nurse; Auden was thus reared in a cultivated environment, a background that showed itself in his adoption of aristocratic behavior during his undergraduate career at Oxford University, 1925 to 1928. Originally intending to become a mining engineer, he abandoned this intention to become a poet, though his interest in science helped forge an intellectual rigor and objectivity that would characterize some of his best poetry. Along with fellow poets and students such as Stephen Spender, Auden became the leader of the so-called Thirties Group, which was to make its mark in that decade. Auden had already met Christopher Isherwood by this time, having attended St. Edmund’s School in Surrey with him. With Isherwood, Auden wrote a travel book and three plays.

After receiving his degree from Oxford in 1928, Auden spent more than a year in Berlin with Isherwood and wrote poems which appeared in his first volume, Poems. A voracious and catholic reader, he had by this time come into contact with works on psychology and the theories of Homer Lane, a disciple of Sigmund Freud. The clinical nature of much of Auden’s poetry of this period, dealing with humankind’s anxiety and the fragmented self, can partly be attributed to the poet’s interest in and interpretation of modern psychological theories. By 1930 Auden was teaching school in Scotland. The Orators, published in 1932, is an extraordinary collection of poems dealing with humanity’s failings in a repressive society—the Enemy. By 1936 two more volumes followed, and his poetry had taken on what the public regarded as Marxist tones.

Portrait of W.H. Auden

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Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most eminent poet of his day, Auden emigrated to the United States in 1939, becoming an American citizen in 1946. For the rest of his life, except for brief periods as an Oxford professor, Auden remained a part of the American literary scene, the New York City literary scene in particular. He lectured and taught at a number of American colleges and universities and steadily produced a body of work that established him as one of the foremost poets of the century.

Another Time and New Year Letter introduce a less cryptic poet, one more committed to a Christian belief in humanity’s failings and capacity for redemption. Many of the poems in these volumes are lyrical, showing the influence of William Butler Yeats, and contain an almost existential outlook on Christianity. The Age of Anxiety (which won for Auden the Pulitzer Prize), Nones, and The Shield of Achilles reflect a more quietly ruminative poet, the Christian interpreter of his society. Auden’s major themes in these works treat the city as both a symbol for and a creation of humankind and civilization. His landscapes are primarily urban and industrial, though some poems, such as the famous "In Praise of Limestone" (1948), suggesting the rugged northern district of his boyhood in England, describe the natural landscape in symbolic terms, as representing facets of the human personality as well as its spiritual conflicts.

Though some critics see the quality of Auden’s work after 1945 as declining, a growing number have reassessed his canon and have come to regard him as a poet who continued to grow creatively throughout his career. Auden is a difficult but rewarding poet. His technical skill and his enormous range and mastery of numerous poetic forms show that, though a modernist, Auden is heir to the great tradition of English poetry. He wrote sonnets, odes, epigrams, sestinas, villanelles, pastorals, ballades, satires, and a panoply of other formal types of poetry.

Auden could be viewed as a kind of twentieth century metaphysical poet. For example, his poetic treatment of the worldly and his use of ordinary objects and familiar places serve as points of departure from which witty, metaphorical meanings develop. His poems often have a conversational, colloquial tone. Like the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, Auden enjoyed witty playfulness, associating an abstract, even abstruse idea with a simple, even homely fact. His poems are marked by a keen intelligence that draws upon a wide range of cultural material. As Auden himself declared, poetry is a game of knowledge.

Author Works Poetry: Poems, 1930 The Orators, 1932 Look, Stranger!, 1936 (also known as On This Island, 1937) Letters from Iceland, 1937 (poetry and prose; with Louis MacNeice) Spain, 1937 Journey to a War, 1939 (poetry and prose; with Christopher Isherwood) Another Time, 1940 The Double Man, 1941 (also known as New Year Letter) For the Time Being, 1944 The Collected Poetry, 1945 The Age of Anxiety, 1947 Collected Shorter Poems, 1930–1944, 1950 Nones, 1951 The Shield of Achilles, 1955 Homage to Clio, 1960 About the House, 1965 Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957, 1966 Collected Longer Poems, 1968 City Without Walls, and Other Poems, 1969 Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems, 1972 Thank You, Fog, 1974 Collected Poems, 1976 (Edward Mendelson, editor) Selected Poems, 1979 (Mendelson, editor) Juvenilia: Poems, 1922–1928, 1994 (Katharine Bucknell, editor) Drama: Paid on Both Sides: A Charade, pb. 1930 The Dance of Death, pb. 1933 The Dog Beneath the Skin: Or, Where Is Francis?, pb. 1935 (with Christopher Isherwood) The Ascent of F6, pb. 1936 (with Isherwood) On the Frontier, pr., pb. 1938 (with Isherwood) Paul Bunyan, pr. 1941 (libretto; music by Benjamin Britten) For the Time Being, pb. 1944 (oratorio; musical setting by Martin David Levy) The Rake’s Progress, pr., pb. 1951 (libretto, with Chester Kallman; music by Igor Stravinsky) Delia: Or, A Masque of Night, pb. 1953 (libretto, with Kallman; not set to music) Elegy for Young Lovers, pr., pb. 1961 (libretto, with Kallman; music by Hans Werner Henze) The Bassarids, pr., pb. 1966 (libretto, with Kallman; music by Henze) Love’s Labour’s Lost, pb. 1972 (libretto, with Kallman; music by Nicolas Nabokov; adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play) The Entertainment of the Senses, pr. 1974 (libretto, with Kallman; music by John Gardiner) Plays and Other Dramatic Writings by W. H. Auden, 1928–1938, pb. 1988 W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman: Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings by W. H. Auden, 1939–1973, pb. 1993 Nonfiction: The Enchafèd Flood, 1950 The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays, 1962 Selected Essays, 1964 Secondary Worlds, 1969 A Certain World, 1970 Forewords and Afterwords, 1973 Prose and Travel Books on Prose and Verse: Volume I, 1926–1938, 1996 (Edward Mendelson, editor) Lectures on Shakespeare, 2000 (Arthur Kirsch, editor) Prose and Travel Books on Prose and Verse: Volume II, 1939–1948, 2002 (Mendelson, editor) Edited Texts: The Oxford Book of Light Verse, 1938 The Portable Greek Reader, 1948 Poets of the English Language, 1950 (5 volumes; with Norman Holmes Pearson) The Faber Book of Modern American Verse, 1956 Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice, 1964 Nineteenth Century British Minor Poets, 1966 A Choice of Dryden’s Verse, 1973 Miscellaneous: The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927–1939, 1977 (Edward Mendelson, editor) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. W. H. Auden: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A valuable anthology of Auden’s criticism because of its comprehensive look at the life, times, and work of the poet, sometimes mistakenly considered a glib or arch-modern poet. Essays elucidate the biographical undercurrents of Auden’s aesthetic vision with frank consideration of his homosexual relationships and conversion to Christianity. Included is Edward Mendelson’s seminal essay, "Auden’s Revision of Modernism." Buell, Frederick. W. H. Auden as a Social Poet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. Arguing that Auden’s poetry is an ironic vision of social and moral responsibility, Buell focuses on the 1930s, when Auden was forming his social views. Contains an interesting analysis of the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s ideas about theater on Auden, when he lived in Berlin. Contains footnotes and an index. Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Carpenter had access to private and unpublished material in crafting this comprehensive and compelling critical biography of the poet. Davenport-Hines, Richard. Auden. New York: Pantheon, 1996. This biography of Auden is also a history of some of the pressing and largely unresolved human and literary problems Auden faced in this lifetime. Fuller, John. W. H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Brings to bear a great deal of erudition, along with meticulous critical attention, and covers the plays and libretti as well as the poetry. In this sense, it is indispensable for those readers who want to take Auden seriously, and at his word, on the concern for "truth" in writing. Gingerich, Martin E. W. H. Auden: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977. An immensely useful and annotated compendium of criticism of Auden’s major poems through 1974. Auden’s students will find this work indispensable in tracing the reception and appreciation of Auden through his early years as a poet to his posthumous reputation. Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. New York: Viking Press, 1981. A synthesis of Auden’s intellectual development and emotional history to 1939. Traces themes back to childhood fantasies, which are the substance of Auden’s poetic self-analysis as symbols for public conditions in his time. The main movement of his art was from a private to a public language. Includes notes and index. Mendelson, Edward. Later Auden. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999. In discussing the verse, Mendelson concentrates not only on major works but also praises less well known, later poems. This is a major study of a poet whose cries against social injustice resound far beyond his time and place. Page, Norman. Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Examines the relationship between the poet Auden and Christopher Isherwood, looking at their friends and associates. Bibliography and index. Smith, Stan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Replete with tools for further research, this is an excellent aid to any study of Auden’s life and work. Spears, Monroe K., ed. Auden: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. This early compendium of Auden’s criticism contains excellent exposition of well-known Auden poems and stands out for its inclusion of appreciations and contextualizations by Auden’s fellow poets, including Cleanth Brooks and Marianne Moore. Also included are seminal articles by American critics Edmund Wilson ("Auden in America") and G. S. Fraser ("The Career of W. H. Auden") that provide essential biographical backgrounds to Auden’s most productive periods of work.

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