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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