W. H. Auden

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107

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.

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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.

When he returned to England, he became a schoolmaster, first at Larchfield Academy, in Scotland, then at Downs School, near Malvern, England. At the same time, however, his literary reputation was growing. His Poems appeared in 1930, firmly establishing his reputation as the most brilliant of England’s younger generation of poets. Perhaps under the influence of Brecht, he had begun writing works that were broadly “dramatic.” Paid on Both Sides: A Charade (pb. 1930, pr. 1931) reinforced the literary world’s opinion of Auden as an important young writer.

Auden’s adult life has frequently been divided into four segments, a division suggested by the poet himself in an introduction to his Collected Shorter Poems, 1930-1944 (1950). The first segment runs from his undergraduate days through 1932, the second comprises the period from 1933 to 1938, and the third extends from 1939 to 1946; the fourth segment began in 1948. The first segment entails the period of his early fame—his notoriety as a brilliant, precocious undergraduate and the publication of his first important poems. This era of Auden’s life might also be viewed as his “Freudian period”; in part, he viewed the work of this era as a kind of therapy, giving free play to fantasy and uncovering hidden impulses. Yet even this early poetry shows the social and political awareness that would infuse his poems throughout the 1930’s.

By 1933, partly under the influence of Brecht and in reaction to the collapse of his beloved Weimar Republic, Auden became an outspoken critic of the political establishment—his life’s second, political, segment. He became increasingly committed to left-wing causes and in 1937 journeyed to Spain as a stretcher-bearer in the struggle of the Loyalist Left against the forces of fascism. He also made use of theater as a way to gain wider public expression of his beliefs; he was a cofounder of the Group Theatre in 1932 and collaborated with Christopher Isherwood, a longtime friend, on several dramatic works. Moreover, he wrote film scripts for the General Post Office film unit, a government-sponsored creative effort that, among other subjects, frequently made films about working-class life in Britain.

Auden traveled widely during the 1930’s, not only to Spain but also to Iceland (his family name, as “Audun,” is mentioned in the Icelandic sagas), China, and the United States. His experience with the Spanish Loyalist armies had left him disillusioned with the Left, and his fame in England apparently meant little to him by this time. Thus, in 1939, he moved to the United States, marking the third period in his life story. Once again, he became a teacher—this time on the university level, as a member of the faculties of the New School for Social Research, the University of Michigan, and Swarthmore, Bennington, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard colleges. During the war years, Auden turned inward; he returned to the Anglo-Catholicism of his youth and wrote several long poems that explore his newly found meditative introspection. The last of these, The Age of Anxiety (1947), earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

During the last period of his life, from 1948 until his death in Vienna on September 29, 1973, Auden divided his time among the United States, Italy, and Austria. Eventually, in 1972, he established residence in Oxford, where he had earlier been named professor of poetry. He continued to write prolifically, although no long poems appeared after 1948. He published two volumes of prose, The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays (1962) and A Certain World (1970), translations, and he collaborated on the librettos of several operas.

Many students of Auden’s biography are struck by the series of enthusiasms that colored his life. Marxist, Freudian, Anglo-Catholic—a lover of Icelandic sagas, William Shakespeare, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—Auden continued until his last years to hold strong beliefs that are often central to his poetry. However, he was also a very private, introspective man. His love lyrics are among the twentieth century’s most celebrated. His later Anglo-Catholicism revealed a powerful inward-turning element in his character, and his religious poems are obviously the result of much soul-searching.

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