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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