March 21, 2013
W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden [England/USA]
Born on February 21, 1907 in York, Wystan Hugh Auden grew up in a professional middle-class family near Birmingham. His father, George Augustus Auden, was a physician, and his mother Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden had trained as a missionary nurse. His grandfathers were both Church of England clergymen, and Auden was raised, accordingly, to follow the “High” Anglican traditions, and throughout his life the poet traced his love of language and music to his childhood church services.
In 1908 his father was appointed the School Medical Officer and Lecturer of Public Health near Birmingham. At age eight Auden began attending a series of boarding schools, returning to his family only at holidays. At his first boarding school, St. Edmund’s in Hindhead, Surrey, Auden met his lifelong friend, Christopher Isherwood. At Gresham’s School, at the age of thirteen, Auden discovered his interest in poetry, soon after, having a crisis of faith. At school he also performed in productions of Shakespeare, publishing his first poems in the school magazine in 1923.
Until fifteen years of age, Auden still planned to become a mining engineer, but his love of language dominated. As Auden would describe it later: “words so excite me that a pornographic story, for example, excites me sexually more than a living person can do.”
In 1926 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, with a scholarship in biology, but changing to English his second year. At Oxford Auden met Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, as well as meeting up again with his childhood friend, Isherwood. The four writers would often be associated later with what would be called “the Auden Group,” in part because of their similar left-wing political views. Auden left Oxford in 1928, with a third-class degree.
His relationship with Isherwood, however, continued to develop, Isherwood serving both as a kind of literary mentor, and later, in the 1930, as a lover. In 1935-1939 the two collaborated on three plays—The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6, and On the Frontier—and a travel book.
In 1928 Auden left English for nine months, traveling to Berlin, in part as a response against what he saw as the repressiveness of British society and the disdain of his work by some English poets. There he experienced the political and economic unrest that would become one of his central themes throughout his life.
Returning to England, he worked as tutor before publishing his first book, Poems (1930), accepted by T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber, who would ultimately publish nearly all of Auden’s works. In 1930 he also began teaching at boys’ schools, first at the Larchfield Academy in Scotland and later at The Downs School, where experienced a feeling a described as a “Vision of Agape,” where he realized a deep love for his fellow teachers, leading him to return to the Anglican Church in 1940.
Throughout these years, Auden had various transient sexual relations with both younger and less intelligent figures, but was unable to form any serious relationships until meeting Chester Kallman in 1939.
Throughout the late 1930 the poet worked as a reviewer, essayist, and lecturer for G.P.O, Film Unit, a branch of the British Post Office. Through that experience he met the composer Benjamin Britten, with whom he collaborated on plays, song cycles, and a libretto.
In 1936 he spent three months in Iceland—a country which had long fascinated Auden’s imagination—which produced the travel book, Letters from Iceland (1930), co-written by Louis MacNeice. Now committed to an activist journalism as opposed to a “reporting” one, Auden traveled to Spain with the intention of driving an ambulance for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. He was instead put to work as a broadcasting propagandist, traveling to the front. Highly effected by the complexity of issues and social views, the seven-week visit to Spain affected him for the rest of his life. In 1938, he and Isherwood spent six months involved in the Sino-Japanese War, working together on the book, Journey to a War. On the return home, the two stopped in New York City, and determined to move to the United States.
They sailed to New York, on temporary visas, in January 1939, their abandonment of England creating even further hostility to Auden’s work by the British poetic scene. In 1939, however, Isherwood moved to California, and Auden and he saw each other only occasionally over the years following.
At this same time Auden met the poet Chester Kallman, who became his lover, their relationship being described by Auden as a “marriage.” That relationship ended in 1941, however, because of Auden’s insistence upon a mutually faithful relationship; yet the two remained companions for the rest of Auden’s life, sharing houses and apartments.
In 1940-41 the two lived at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, sharing a house with Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, and several others, a house that became known later as “February House.”
When Britain declared war on Germany, Auden offered to return to England, but was told by the British embassy that, because of his age, he was not needed. In 1941-42 he taught English at the University of Michigan. In August of 1942 he was drafted into the US Army, but was rejected on medical grounds. Although he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the following year, he chose instead to teach at Swarthmore College, where he continued until 1945.
With the end of World War II in Europe, he was asked to join the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany to determine the effects of Allied bombings on German morale, a visit which again deeply affected him. Upon returning to the US, he joined the faculty of The New School for Social Research, as well as lecturing at Bennington, Smith, and US colleges. Auden became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1946.
As the years passed, Auden was drawn to Roman Catholicism, particularly through the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Beginning in 1948, first in Ischia, Italy and a decade later, in Kirchstetten, Austria, Auden summered in Europe, buying a farmhouse in Austria.
From 1956-61, Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, requiring him to present three lectures each year. But he continued to winter in New York, living now on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village of Manhattan, while summering in Europe. Auden died in Vienna in 1973 and was buried in his beloved Kirchstetten.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1930/ reprinted 1933); The Orators: An English Study (London: Faber and Faber, 1932/reprinted 1966); Look Stranger (London: Faber and Faber, 1936; published as On This Island (New York: Random House, 1937); Letters from Iceland (prose and poetry, with Louis MacNeice) (London: Faber and Faber, 1937/New York: Random House, 1937); Journey to the War (prose and poetry, with Christopher Isherwood) (London: Faber and Faber, 1939/New York: Random House, 1939); Another Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1940/New York: Random House, 1940); The Double Man (London: Faber and Faber, 1941/New York: Random House, 1941); For the Time Being (New York: Random House, 1944/London: Faber and Faber, 1945); The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden (New York: Random House, 1945); The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (New York: Random House, 1947/London: Faber and Faber, 1948); Collected Shorter Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1950); Nones (New York: Random House, 1951/London: Faber and Faber, 1952); The Shield of Achilles (New York: Random House, 1955/London: Faber and Faber, 1955); Homage to Clio (London: Faber and Faber, 1960/New York: Random house, 1960); About the House (London: Faber and Faber, 1965/New York: Random House, 1965); Collected Longer Poems (London: Faber, 1968/New York: Random House, 1969); City without Walls and Other Poems (London: Faber, 1969/New York: Random House, 1969); Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1972/New York: Random House, 1972); Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1974/New York: Random House, 1974); Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1976/New York: Random House, 1976/reprinted New York: Vintage Books, 1989); Juvenilia: Poems 1922-1928 (London: Faber and Faber, 1994/Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994); Poems (New York: Knopf, 1995); Collected Poems (New York: Modern Library, 2007); Selected Poems (New York: Vintage International, 2007)
For a selection of Auden poems, go here: