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W. H. Auden (1907-1973) - Wystan Hugh Auden


English-born poet, whose world view developed from youthful rebellion to rediscovered Anglo-Catholicism. In his work W.H. Auden reconciled tradition and modernism. Auden is widely considered among the greatest literary figures of the 20th century.

Poets are, by the nature of their interests and the nature of artistic fabrication, singularly ill-equipped to understand politics or economics. Their natural interest is in singular individuals and personal relations, while politics and economics are concerned with larger numbers of people, hence with the human average (the poet is bored to the death by the idea of the Common Man) and with impersonal, to a great extent involuntary, relations. (from 'The Poet and the City,' first published in The Massachusetts Review, 1962, Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000 by Jon Cook, Blackwell, 2004, p. 382)

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, North Yorkshire, the son of George Augustus Auden, a distinguished physician, and Rosalie (Bicknell) Auden. Solihull in the West Midlands, where Auden was brought up, remained important to him as a poet. Auden was educated at St. Edmund's School in Hindhead, Surrey, and then at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. In 1925 he entered Christ Church, Oxford. Auden's studies and writing progressed without much success: he took a disappointing third-class degree in English. And his first collection of poems was rejected by T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber. It was privately printed by Stephen Spender. At one time in his undergraduate years he planned to become a biologist. From 1928 to 1929 he lived in Berlin, where he took advantage of the sexually liberal atmosphere, and was introduced to the psychological theories of Homer Lane.

After returning to England Auden taught at a prep school, in 1930 privately in London, at Larchfield Academy, a boys' school in Helensburgh (Scotland), and at Downs School, Colwall, Herefordshire in 1932-35. He was staff member of GPO film Unit (1935-36), making documentaries such as the famous Night Mail (1935), which became the best-known documentary of the era. Music for this film was provided by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), with whom Auden collaborated on the song-cycle 'Our Hunting Fathers 'and on the unsuccessful folk-opera 'Paul Bunyan'. Britten educated Auden in contemporary music and encouraged him to embrace the work of Mahler, Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In return Auden took pains to present Britten with the fact of the composer's own homosexuality, something that his friend was as yet unwilling to speak out. Auden sometimes invited his friends to go to bed with him, but Britten never hinted at it in his diary.

Auden first gained attention in 1930 when his short verse play called ''Paid on Both Sides'' was published in T. S. Eliot's periodical The Criterion. In the same year appeared Auden's Poems, his first commercially published book, in which he carefully avoided Yeatsian romantic self-expression – the poems were short, untitled, slightly cryptic, but free of philosophical abstraction. The collection had a powerful influence on Auden's peers, including Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. Believing himself to be of Icelandic descent, Auden went in 1936 to Iceland with MacNeice.

Auden soon gained fame as a leftist intellectual. He showed interest in Marx and Freud and he wrote passionately on social problems, among others in Look, Stranger! (1936). However, by 1962 he argued that art and politics were best kept apart, stating in his essay 'The Poet and the City': "All political theories which, like Plato, are based on analogies drawn from artistic fabrication are bound, if put into practice, to turn into tyrannies. The whole aim of a poet, or any other kind of artist, is to produce something which is complete and will endure without change." (Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000 , p. 382)

In the late 1930s Auden's poems were perhaps less radical politically, suffering and injustice are not rejected as a part of ordinary life. The last works from this decade astonished readers with their light comic tone and domesticity. MI5 officers labelled members of the Auden group as "communists" and kept surveillance on them. The surveillance continued through the Second World War and into the 1950s. Auden was implicated in the defection of his one-time-friend and Soviet mole Guy Burgess.

Auden married in 1935 Thomas Mann's daughter Erika Mann, a lesbian actress and journalist, so that she could get a British passport. They met for the first time on their "wedding day." Of women he once said: "When people are talking they should retire to the kitchen." In 1937 Auden went to Spain as a civilian and gave radio broadcasts to help the Republican forces. These experiences he recorded in Spain (1937). However, he did not actively continue his campaign. Like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, he became disillusioned with the politics of the struggle. In stead of being welcomed as a supporter of the Republican cause he was ignored because he wasn't a member of the Communist Party.

In the 1930s Auden collaborated with Christopher Isherwood in several plays (The Dog Beneath the Skin, 1935; The Ascent of F6, 1936; On the Frontier, 1939), and travelled with him in China in 1938. They had first first met at St Edmund's School. Isherwood noted Auden for his "naughtiness, his insolence, his smirking tantalizing air of knowing disreputable and exciting secrets." Auden was two and half years younger, but they enjoyed each other's company. Sex, according to Isherwood, gave their friendship an extra dimension. Auden regarded Isherwood as his most important critic.

Compressed figures of speech, direct statement, and musical effect characterized On This Island (1937) and Another Time (1940). Eliot believed that Auden's long career as a teacher left too much traces on his work –  after attending the performance of The Dog Beneath the Skin he wrote in a letter in March 1936 that ''one tires of having things explained and being preached at. I do think Auden ought to find a different method in his next play." (W.H. Auden: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981, p. 194)

In January 1939 Auden and Isherwood emigrated to America. 'September 1, 1939,' one of his most famous and often-quoted poems was first published in the New Republic, in October 1939. Auden himself  characterized this work as dishonest, but his attempts to rewrite and abandon it turned out to be fruitless. The title refers to the day Germany invaded Poland. "We must love one another or die," he wrote, but afterwards when he came to the line he said to himself: ""That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway." (Faith and Doubt: Religion and Secularization in Literature from Wordsworth to Larkin by R. L. Brett, 1997, p. 213)

From October 1940 Auden lived in a rented house in New York at 15 Middagh Street in Brooklyn with George Davis, Golo Mann, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Louis MacNeice, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Paul and Jane Bowles. Auden became a US citizen in 1946.

In the 1940s Auden turned into a religious thinker under the influence of Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), the foremost American Protestant theologian. Auden depicted his conversion to Anglicanism, his mother's faith, in the The Sea and the Mirror (1944) and For the Time Being (1944), in which 'The Sea and the Mirror,' subtitled 'A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest,' presented a Christian-allegorical reading of Shakespeare's work. The poem can be understood as an allegorical drama, with Prospero representing the conscious ego, Ariel the imagination, and Caliban material needs of fallen creatures. But Auden's original mind leaves much to interpretations – his poems challenge the reader to abandon preconceived expectations.

When Statesmen gravely say 'We must be realistic',
The chances are they're weak and, therefore, pacifistic,
But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps
Their generals are already poring over maps.

(from 'Shorts,' in Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, Random House, 1967, p. 191)

From 1939 to 1953 Auden taught at various schools and universities. "We could hardly believe he had come to teach! Completely unconventional, striding about in a large black Flemish hat, waving an umbrella, he entranced us with his eccentricity, tireless energy and sense of fun. We called him Uncle Wiz," one student recallled. (W.H. Auden: A Biography, p. 143) Auden believed that criticism is live conversation. When he was lecturing in New York in 1946-47 on Shakespeare he discarded his manuscripts after each session. However, Alan Ansen and other members of the audience managed to collect his texts which were published in 2001. Later Ansen became Auden's secretary and friend.

During World War II Auden was granted temporary status as Major when he went with the U.S. Army to Germany to report on the psychological effects of bombing on civilians. From 1956 to 1961 he was a professor of poetry at Oxford and from 1954 a member of the American Academy. Auden lived primarly in New York, though he also spent summers in Kirchstetten, Austria. He was a member of the editorial board of Decision magazine (1940-41), Delos magazine (1968), and editor of the Yale Series of Young Poets (1947-62).

Just one day after leaving the USSR, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky met Auden in Kirchstetten. Auden had written a short foreword to George Kline's translation of Brodsky. During the four weeks Brodsky spent with him, the elder poetwrote from morning till evening while sipping a scotch on the rocks. Auden started his day with a dry martini around 7.30 a.m., had a lunch at one o'clck, took a nap, and by suppetime he was "pretty well crocked." Before bedtime he sipped "some aged Chateau d'whatever." Auden's friend Stravinsky joked that at old age his face was so wrinkled that "soon we shall have to smooth him out to see who he is." (Joseph Brodsky: A Litetary Life by Lev Loseff, 2011, pp. 169-170)

Auden's last and longest poem, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue  (1947) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Most of its action takes place in a bar near Times Square, where four strangers sit drinking, listening to news of the war, and trying to find some sort of meaning in life. The men represent four differentiated functions of the psyche,  Thought, Feeling, and Sensation. Obsessed with the work, the composer Leonard Bernstein set it to music, but his reading of Auden was more about generalized themes and moods, rather than a line-by-line interpretation. The symphony, written "on the run" in hotel rooms around the world, premiered in 1949.

About the House (1965) represents Auden's mature period, technically playful and intellectually sharp and witty. The poems corresponded to the rooms of Auden's Austrian house, the boundaries of his everyday life. His Collected Shorter Poems (1966) was divided into four section, each of which represented a chapter in his life. He frequently revised his poems.

Auden also wrote opera librettos with the American poet Chester Kallman, who was only 18 when Auden fell in love with him, and who lived with him over 20 years. In 1972 Auden left New York and returned to Oxford, living in a cottage provided by Christ Church. He died of a heart-attack after giving a poetry reading in Vienna on September 29, 1973. Auden was buried in nearby Kirchstetten. Kallman died in 1975, penniless, in Athens.

Auden often returned to his early poems and revised them from his later viewpoint as a Christian. He talked of himself as a colonizer of modern verse, when such poets as Marianne Moore or Ezra Pound were explorers. In 'Psychology and Art To-Day,' Auden claimed that art consists in telling parables "from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions." Sometimes Auden used the parable as a means of speaking about Christianity at a distance, as in the 1954 essay 'Balaam and his Ass.' In 'The Guilty Vicarage' (1949) Auden found in the detective story a Christian parable of existential guilt.

Among Auden's single most popular poems is 'Funeral Blues' which was used in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994): "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. / Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. / (...)" Following the death of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1939, Auden wrote the elegy 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats,' which has been one of his most celebrated and cited poems: "In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise."

For further reading: The Poetry of W.H. Auden by Monroe K. Spears (1963); A Reader's Guide to W.H. Auden by John Fuller (1970); W.H. Auden: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (1981); W.H. Auden: The Critical Heritage, edited by John Haffenden (1983); Early Auden by Edward Mendelson (1983); W.H. Auden: The Far Interior, edited by Alan Bold (1985); Auden's Apologies for Poetry by Lucy McDiarmid (1990); Auden by Richard Davenport-Hines (1995); Later Auden by Edward Mendelson (1999); The Poetry of W.H. Auden by Paul Hendon (2002); W.H. Auden Encyclopedia by David Garrett Izzo (2011); Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography by Edward Mendelson (2017); Poetry for Historians, or, W.H. Auden and History by Carolyn Steedman (2018); Landscapes of W. H. Auden's Interwar Poetry: Roots and Routes by Ladislav Vit (2022)

Selected works:

  • Poems, 1930
  • The Orators, 1932
  • The Dance of Death, 1933 (play)
  • The Dog Beneath the Skin, 1935 (with Christopher Isherwood)
  • Look, Stranger!, 1936 (US title: On This Island, 1937) 
  • Night Mail, 1936
  • The Ascent of F6, 1936 (with Christopher Isherwood)
  • Spain, 1937
  • Letters from Iceland, 1937 (with Louis MacNeice)
  • On the Frontier, 1938 (with Christopher Isherwood)
  • Journey to a War, 1939 (with Christopher Isherwood)
  • Another Time, 1940
  • The Double Man, 1941
  • For the Time Being, 1944
  • The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, 1947 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • The Rake's Progress, 1951 (libretto with Chester Kallman to Igor Stravinsky's opera)
    - Hulttion tie (suom. Leena Vallisaari, 1987)
  • Nones, 1951
  • Mountains, 1954
  • The Shield of Achilles, 1955
  • Homage to Clio, 1960
  • Don Giovanni, 1961 (libretto)
  • Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961 (translator, with Chester Kallman,libretto for an NBC Opera Theater production)
  • The Dyer's Hand, 1962
  • Selected Essays, 1964
  • About the House, 1965
  • The Bassarids, 1961 (libretto for Hans Werner Henze)
  • Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957 1927-57, 1966
  • Secondary Worlds, 1967
  • Collected Longer Poems, 1969
  • City Without Walls and Other Poems, 1969
  • A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, 1970
  • Academic Graffiti, 1971
  • St. John Perse: Collected Poems, 1971 (translator, with others)
  • Gunnar Ekelöf: Selected Poems, 1971 (translator, with Leif Sjöberg)
  • Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems, 1972
  • Forewords and Afterwords, 1973
  • Love's Labour's Lost, 1973 (libretto, with with Chester Kallman)
  • Thank You, Fog: Last Poems, 1974
  • Collected Poems, 1976 (ed. Edward Mendelson; 2nd edn. 1990; 3rd edn., 2007)
  • The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, 1977 (edited Edward Mendelson)
  • The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Plays and Other Dramatic Writings, 1928-1938, 1988 (The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, ed. by Edward Mendelson)
  • Collected Poems, 1991 (edited by Edward Mendelson)
  • The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings, 1939-1973, 1993 (The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson)
  • Tell Me the Truth about Love: Ten Poems by W H Auden, 1994
  • W. H. Auden: Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse: Volume I. 1926-1938, 1997 (The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson)
  • Lectures on Shakespeare, 2001 (ed. by Arthur Kirsch)
  • W. H. Auden Prose: Volume II. 1939-1948, 2002 (The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson)
  • W. H. Auden Prose: Volume III. 1949-1955, 2008 (The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson)
  • Prose. Volume IV, 1956-1962, 2010 (edited by Edward Mendelson)
  • W. H. Auden: Poems: Volume l: 1927-1939; Volume ll: 1940-1973, 2022 (edited by Edward Mendelson)

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