W. H. Auden’s work in many ways contradicts the Romantic view that a poem should be an emotional outpouring, a sincere expression of pure subjectivity. Instead, he said, poetry is a “game of knowledge,” a clear-eyed way of approaching objective truth.
In his own poems, this truth often adopted a moral or social guise. “Poetry,” Auden wrote, “is a way of extending our knowledge of good and evil.” Many of his poems are intended to help men and women make good moral choices, even though the way by which the poems do this is not always clear. Nevertheless, the body of Auden’s poetry is exemplary for its vivid and strongly felt social conscience. His work also is marked by his fine ear and his instinct for rhythm, structure, and sound. This seamless joining of intelligence and verbal music signals that Auden is one of the master craftsmen of modern poetry.
Wystan Hugh Auden (AWD-ehn) was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. He was the youngest son of George and Constance Auden. His father and mother belonged to a very distinct niche of early twentieth century Edwardian society—that of the politically liberal, scientific intelligensia. He came, nevertheless, from a very devout Anglo-Catholic home, and his early experiences with the Church would remain with him when he returned to it later in life. As a child, he was fascinated by the “magic” of Church of England rites, and this enchantment with the magical and the mystical also remained a lifelong characteristic. Auden’s father was a distinguished physician and professor of medicine; his mother was a nurse. By all accounts, his family environment was loving, intelligent, clear-thinking—traits that were foremost in Auden as an adult. He received the standard schooling of an upper-middle-class male child in early twentieth century England. Beginning his education at St. Edmund’s preparatory school at eight years of age, he attended Gresham’s School at age thirteen.
At first, Auden intended to become a scientist, like his father. He was principally interested in both engineering and biology and planned to become a mining engineer. This career path was soon overtaken by another, however; while he was still at Gresham’s, he began to write poetry. His first poem was published when he was seventeen. This early publication foreshadowed the fame that would come to him just a few years later while he was still in college. He entered Oxford in 1925 and very soon afterward had acquired a faithful clique. Those who knew him during his university years remember him as a rising star, someone who would clearly make a name for himself as a poet and thinker. A group of men who would later also be important poets formed around him— Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. Spender privately printed the first collection of Auden’s poems in 1928, the year that Auden graduated from Oxford.
After graduation, he spend a year abroad, the traditional Wanderjahr of upper-class young Englishmen. When his parents asked in which European city he would like to spend his year, Auden surprisingly answered that he wanted to live in Berlin. Germany in the years of the Weimar Republic, before Adolf Hitler came to power, was an exciting place—stimulating, racy, intellectually bold. There, Auden became acquainted with the politically charged plays of Bertolt Brecht and the sexy, witty songs of the Berlin cabarets. He perfected his German during his year abroad, and throughout his life he would be influenced by German literature, both classical and modern.