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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 Auden reconciled tradition and modernism. Auden is widely considered among the greatest literary figures of the 20th century.
"But time is always guilty. Someone must pay for
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
provided by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), with whom Auden collaborated
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
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' that "All political
theories which, like Plato, are based on analogies drawn from artistic
fabrication are bound, if put into practice, to turn into tyrannies."
Compressed figures of speech, direct statement, and musical effect
characterized On This Island
(1937) and Another Time
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
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. In
January 1939 they 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',
From 1939 to 1953 Auden taught at various schools and universities. T.S. Eliot believed that Auden's long career as a teacher left too much traces on his work – ''One tires,'' Eliot stated, ''of having things explained and being preached at.'' Auden's pupils remember his heavy smoking, tireless energy, large black Flemish hat, and umbrella he waved. "We called him Uncle Wiz," one student told later. (W.H. Auden: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, 1981) 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,
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. 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.
'Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow.'
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
"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, ed. by John Haffenden (1983); Early Auden by Edward Mendelson (1983); W.H. Auden: The Far Interior, ed. 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) - See The Spanish Civil War and writers: Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Federico García Lorca, etc. See also: C.D. Lewis