Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1876
W. H. Auden 1907–1973
(Full name Wystan Hugh Auden) English-born American poet, dramatist, librettist, critic, essayist, editor, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Auden's career through 1997. See also W. H. Auden Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4.
W. H. Auden is considered one of the preeminent English-language poets of the twentieth century. In many ways a contradictory personality, at once prudent, revolutionary, pious, and intemperate, Auden is distinguished for his enormous intelligence, technical virtuosity, complex philosophical and moral vision, and keen wit. His prodigious output, spanning nearly a half century, includes inventive experiments with lyric and prose poetry, verse drama, librettos, and notable contributions to literary criticism. His best known poetry, most of which appears in The Orators (1932), Another Time (1940), Journey to a War (1939), New Year Letter (1941), For the Time Being (1944), The Age of Anxiety (1947), and Nones (1951), reflects his life-long preoccupation with political, psychological, and spiritual conflicts. As an innovative dramatist and librettist working in operatic forms, Auden also displayed an intuitive musical ear and theatrical genius ahead of his time. A highly original poet and celebrated man of letters, Auden's large and varied oeuvre attests to the impressive range and profundity of his literary and intellectual endeavors.
Born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England, and named after a Saxon saint, Auden was raised in the industrial city of Birmingham by devout, well-educated Anglo-Catholic parents of clerical descent. His father was School Medical Officer and Professor of Public Health in Birmingham. The family library, reflecting his wide ranging interests in archaeology, psychology, the classics, and Norse saga, acquainted the young Auden with scientific subjects and literature. His mother, with whom Auden maintained a powerful attachment, held a degree in French and worked as a nurse. Auden attended preparatory school at Saint Edmund's between 1915 and 1920, where he befriended Christopher Isherwood. He then went to Gresham's School, Holt, where he wrote his first poems and began to come to terms with his homosexuality. His first published poem appeared in Public School Verse in 1924. A brilliant student whose wealth of diverse knowledge dazzled his instructors and peers, in 1925 Auden began study at Christ Church College, Oxford, on a scholarship in natural science, though he later switched to English. At Oxford, Auden published poetry in Oxford Poetry, for which he served as an editor, and his first volume of poetry, Poems (1928), which was handprinted and privately distributed by classmate Stephen Spender. During this time, Auden was at the center of a group of emerging young writers including Spender, Isherwood, and Cecil Day-Lewis, alternately known as the "Oxford Group" or the "Auden Generation." While still at Oxford, Auden also wrote his first dramatic work, Paid on Both Sides (1930), which T. S. Eliot eventually published in the Criterion. After graduating in 1928. Auden spent a year in Berlin, then took up work as a schoolmaster in England and Scotland for several years while composing his first commercially distributed volumes, Poems (1930), The Orators, and a verse drama The Dance of Death (1933). Auden also collaborated with Isherwood on the verse dramas The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1938). Established as a major poet during the 1930s, Auden became increasingly interested in left-wing political movements and social causes. He travelled to Iceland with Louis MacNeice in 1936, documented in Letters from Iceland (1937); to Spain in 1937 to support anti-fascist Loyalists in the Spanish Revolution, inspiring the poem "Spain"; and to China with...
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- Critical Essays