Richard Davenport-Hines Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Wystan Hugh Auden was born into a middle-class English family in 1907, the son of George Auden, a medical doctor, and Constance Bicknell Auden, a nurse. Auden grew up in an atmosphere that fostered intellectual and cultural growth, and his parents, both the children of clergymen, gave him and his two older brothers a strong sense of traditional religious values. His father was the strongest influence on his early intellectual life, teaching Auden about classical and Norse mythology and encouraging his interest in science. Auden maintained this interest throughout his life, often using scientific concepts and images in his poetry.

In 1915, when he was eight, Auden went as a boarder to St. Edmund’s School in Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood, later his close friend and collaborator. After St. Edmund’s, Auden attended Gresham’s School, an institution with a strong reputation in the sciences. During his time there, Auden began to question the religion of his childhood and to distance himself from the traditional values of his middle-class, public-school upbringing. At Gresham’s, he acknowledged his homosexuality, and, by the time he left, he had abandoned his faith.

Auden’s interest in writing, begun at Gresham’s, flourished at Oxford, where he went to read science in 1925. He soon changed to English studies and, before finishing his undergraduate career, resolved to make poetry his vocation. While at Oxford and in the remaining years of the 1930’s, Auden established a considerable reputation as a poet and experimental dramatist. In 1928, he wrote his first dramatic work, Paid on Both Sides, a brief “charade” that draws heavily on his English public-school experience, his fascination with the lead-mining country of his youth, and the Icelandic legends he learned from his father. Four years later, in 1932, he again turned to theater. In the summer of that year, the ballet dancer Rupert Doone and the painter Robert Medley (whom Auden had known at Gresham’s) proposed to Auden the idea of forming an experimental theater company that Doone hoped could be “self-sufficient and...

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Richard Davenport-Hines Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, in 1907, the third and youngest son of George and Constance Auden. Before his youngest son was two years old, George Auden gave up a private medical practice in York and moved his family south to Birmingham, where he worked as the city’s school medical officer. W. H. Auden’s devout, middle-class family (both his parents were the children of clergymen) gave him a strong sense of traditional religious values and encouraged his early intellectual bent. His mother, Auden frequently said, was the strongest presence in his early years. He was particularly close to her and believed throughout his life that her influence was largely responsible for shaping his adult character.

Auden’s father, a widely educated man in both the humanities and sciences, acquainted the young Auden at an early age with classical literature and Nordic myths, and encouraged his reading in poetry and fiction as well as scientific subjects, including medicine, geology, and mining. This early reading was supported by a close familiarity with nature, and Auden as a child developed a fascination for the landscape of limestone caves and abandoned mines that is recalled in several of his poems. Auden’s first inclinations were, in fact, toward the scientific and natural rather than literary, and as a young boy he fancied himself a mining engineer. His interest in science continued throughout his life and is reflected in the frequent use of scientific ideas and images in his poetry, and accounts, perhaps, for the stance of clinical detachment found in his early work.

In 1915, Auden was sent as a boarder to St. Edmund’s school in Surrey, and, after completing his studies there in 1920, attended Gresham’s School, an institution known for its excellence in the sciences. While at Gresham’s, Auden gradually came to acknowledge his homosexuality and to question many of his middle-class values and religious beliefs; by the time he left Gresham’s, he had abandoned his faith. It was also during this period that Auden, at the suggestion of Robert Medley, began to write his first poems.

In 1925, Auden enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford, where he discovered a congenial social atmosphere far different from the repressive climate at Gresham’s. He found in the young don Nevill Coghill a sympathetic, stimulating tutor who was soon informed of Auden’s intentions to become a “great poet.” After a year of reading in the sciences, Auden turned his interests to English studies and soon developed an enthusiasm for the then unfashionable poetry of the Anglo-Saxon period. This confirmed his preference for the Nordic-Germanic rather than Continental romance tradition, a bias evident in much of his early poetry and, later, in The Age of Anxiety, with its close...

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Richard Davenport-Hines Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the most important poets of the twentieth century, Wystan Hugh Auden (AWD-ehn) 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...

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