W. H. Auden Literary Criticism - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 Isherwood in 1938, recounted in the travel book Journey to a War. He also worked with composer Benjamin Britten on several documentary films and librettos, including On Hunting Fathers (1936) and Paul Bunyan (1941). Auden married Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann, in 1935 to provide her with British nationality enabling her to leave Nazi Germany, after which they divorced. In 1939, Auden moved to the United States with Isherwood, where he became an official citizen in 1946, remaining in New York City until 1972. Once in America, Auden underwent a religious conversion that restored him to the Christianity of his youth. His first American publication, Another Time, contains some of his most memorable poetry. During the next decade, Auden was the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, taught at several prestigious liberal arts colleges, and continued to produce important volumes of poetry, including The Double Man (1941), reprinted the same year under the title New Year Letter; For the Time Being; and The Age of Anxiety, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Auden also published the first of several collections of his work with The Collected Poetry (1945), for which he received the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Auden suffered a fatal heart attack at his summer home in Kirchstetten, Austria, in 1973.

Major Works

Auden is best known as a poet of great erudition, wisdom, and remarkable lyrical gifts. His early verse in Poems (1930) is characterized by terse exposition, alluring abstraction, and inventive use of language, bearing the influence of Eliot and Thomas Hardy, Auden's initial master, as well as Laura Riding, Wilfred Owen, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Auden's early poems also adumbrate his penchant for Anglo-Saxon phrasing, syncopated rhythms, traditional forms, the allegorical imagery of science and geology, and his deep-felt humanitarian concerns. Drawing on eclectic sources for the verse drama Paid on Both Sides, inspired by the lively dramatic action of the parlor charade and the plays of Bertolt Brecht and William Butler Yeats, Auden merges the archaic style and blood-feud theme of Anglo-Saxon poetry with structural elements of Greek tragedy and the fragmentary modernist presentation of Eliot's The Waste Land. Auden built upon these early experiments in the prose and verse of The Orators, drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist doctrine, and the avant-garde techniques of Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein to present a surreal vision of the revolutionary hero and a warning against the danger of fascism. Peppered with private jokes and allusions to his friends, The Orators laments and satirizes the stagnation of English society and the dubious promise of untamed modernism. Similar political and psychological concerns are echoed in Auden's collaborative verse dramas with Isherwood from this period, including The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier. Look, Stranger! (1936), reprinted as On This Island (1937), marks Auden's entrance into leftist politics and his shift toward an increasingly formal aesthetic. Turning away from the obtuseness of modernism and the subjective idealism of the Romantics, Auden invokes the directness and clarity of light verse to give serious expression to his strong ethical stance and to impose order upon the chaos preceding the Second World War. His poem "Spain," composed immediately after witnessing the brutal internecine combat in that country, reflects Auden's disillusionment with political causes and the indiscriminate violence of war. "In Time of War." a sequence of sonnets which appeared in Journey to a War, reveals the maturation of Auden's civic voice and liberal humanist creed. Published shortly thereafter, Another Time displays the full emergence of Auden's unique synthesis of technical mastery, moral probity, and spirited lyricism. This volume, his first American publication, contains many of his greatest poems, including "As I Walked Out One Evening," "Musée des Beaux Arts," "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love," "September 1, 1939," "The Unknown Citizen," "Letter to Lord Byron," and elegies to poets Matthew Arnold, A. E. Housman, and Yeats. The full impact of Auden's self-imposed exile and acute spiritual crisis, which led to his reversion to Christianity, is evident in The Double Man. This volume contains "New Year Letter," an extended epistolary poem on the evils of modern civilization rendered in Augustan form, and the sonnet sequence "The Quest." Influenced by the existentialist thought of Soren Kierkegaard and American theologian Rheinhold Neibuhr, Auden moved still further toward a cerebral style that sought universal harmony in a system of religious ideals. For the Time Being contains "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," an overt Christian allegory based on the Nativity in which he employs the terminology of science and psychology to rationalize religious faith, and "The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest," an ambitious allegorical work that examines the complex relationship between life and art and the creative potential of literary interpretation. His next major work, The Age of Anxiety, subtitled "a baroque eclogue," relates the inner consciousness of four disparate characters as they converse among themselves in a New York City bar during the Second World War. Returning to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon versification of his early poetry, Auden explores the spiritual dimensions of their ordinary lives and individual failings within a religious context. The height of Auden's mature, intellectual style is evident in Nones, which contains "In Praise of Limestone," The Shield of Achilles (1955), featuring "Horae Canonicae" and "Bucolics," and Homage to Clio (1960), which includes "The Cave of Making" and "Tonight at Seven-Thirty." Devoid of the frivolity of his earlier poetry, the serene meditations of these late volumes, frequently in neo-classical or pastoral modes, displays Auden's unsurpassed technical control and deep insights into the nature of human existence and experience, particularly as informed by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, medieval Christianity, history, and nature. Auden's highly perceptive critical essays, reviews, and lectures in The Enchafèd Flood (1950). The Dyer's Hand (1962), and Forewords and Afterwords (1973) document his intellectual concerns and artistic principles during his American period.

Critical Reception

Auden is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Though a decidedly modern poet in terms of his radical politics and bold experimentation with accepted literary forms, Auden's idiosyncratic virtuosity and protean ethical perspective distinguishes him from his contemporaries. As many critics note, Auden's striking originality stems from his counterrevolutionary appropriation of traditional poetic forms, unabashed Christian faith, and mistrust of irrationalism, all seemingly at odds with the tenets of both modernism and romanticism from which his poetry derives. While most critics view Auden's poetry from the 1930s and early 1940s as his best, especially as found in The Orators, Another Time, and the poems "Spain," "In Time of War," and "New Year Letter," controversy surrounds evaluation of the middle and later periods of his career. "New Year Letter" continues to receive much critical attention, as does the relevance of Auden's self-imposed exile in America. Some critics believe that Auden's poetry lost much of its imaginative power and vitality after his emigration to the United States. However, others contend that the contemplative Christianity and Horatian intellectualism of Auden's American period represents the apogee of his disciplined style and sensibility, particularly as evident in The Age of Anxiety, "The Sea and the Mirror" from For the Time Being, and "In Praise of Limestone" from Nones. Many critics note a tendency toward obscurity in much of Auden's poetry throughout his career, variously attributed to his liberating genius, private satire, and cloaked references to his homosexuality. Despite Auden's significant contributions to contemporary musical theater, he remains largely unstudied as a dramatist and librettist, mainly due to the fact that the forms in which he worked have either fallen out of favor or never fully developed popular appreciation. A prolific poet of extraordinary technical dexterity, intellectual domain, engaging perspicacity, and epigrammatic wit, Auden forged a rare poetic voice that reconciled the opposing forces of tradition and modernism, for which he is hailed as a towering figure of twentieth-century literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poems (poetry) 1928
Poems (poetry) 1930
Paid on Both Sides (drama) 1931
The Orators: An English Study (poetry) 1932
The Dance of Death (drama) 1933
The Dog Beneath the Skin; or, Where Is Francis? [with Christopher Isherwood] (drama) 1935
The Ascent of F6: A Tragedy in Two Acts [with Christopher Isherwood] (drama) 1936
Look, Stranger! (poetry) [published in the United States as On this Island, 1937] 1936
On Hunting Fathers [with Benjamin Britten] (libretto) 1936
Letters from Iceland [with Louis MacNeice] (poetry) 1937
Spain (poetry) 1937
On the Frontier: A Melodrama in Three Acts [with Christopher Isherwood] (drama) 1938
Selected Poems (poetry) 1938
Ballad of Heroes [with Randall Swingler and Benjamin Britten] (libretto) 1939
Journey to a War [with Christopher Isherwood] (poetry) 1939
Another Time (poetry) 1940
The Double Man [republished as New Year Letter] (poetry) 1941
Paul Bunyan: An Operetta in Two Acts and a Prologue [with Benjamin Britten] (libretto) 1941
For the Time Being (poetry) 1944
The Collected Poetry (poetry) 1945
The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (poetry) 1947
Collected Shorter Poems, 1933–1944 (poetry) 1950
The Enchafèd Flood; or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (criticism) 1950
Nones (poetry) 1951
The Rake's Progress: Opera in Three Acts [with Chester Kallman and Igor Stravinsky] (libretto) 1951
The Shield of Achilles (poetry) 1955
Homage to Clio (poetry) 1960
Elegy for Young Lovers [with Chester Kallman and Hans Werner Henze] (libretto) 1961
The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (essays) 1962
About the House (poetry) 1965
The Bassarids [with Chester Kallman and Hans Werner Henze] (libretto) 1966
Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957 (poetry) 1966
Collected Longer Poems (poetry) 1968
City Without Walls and Other Poems (poetry) 1969
Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (poetry) 1972
Forewords and Afterwords (essays) 1973
Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (poetry) 1974
Collected Poems (poetry) 1976
The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927–39 (poetry, essays, and drama) 1977

Samuel Hynes (essay date Winter 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 31-52.

[In the following essay, Hynes discusses Auden's emigration to the United States, his preoccupation with history and art, and "New Year Letter" as a reflection of Auden's historical sensibility.]

What I am going to say here concerns the relations between poetry and history. I intend to deal with Auden as an historical poet—in the sense not of a poet reconstructing the past in the manner of Browning and Pound, but of one who saw human actions as conditioned by history, and history as the necessity that men must recognize if they are to be free; and who wrote his historical understanding into his...

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Ron McFarland (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Auden's Cena: 'Tonight at Seven-Thirty,'" in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 139-47.

[In the following essay, McFarland examines the significance of Roman satiric verse and the conventions of the cena, a Roman banquet, in "Tonight at Seven-Thirty."]

Among W. H. Auden's many neo-classical poems, the dozen collected under the rubric, "Thanksgiving for a Habitat" (written between 1958 and July 1964), each poem dedicated to some personal friend or friends, constitutes perhaps the most outrageously (some might say self-indulgently) Augustan of his opus. "Every home should be a fortress," he writes in "The Common Life," "equipped with all the very latest...

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Alan W. France (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gothic North and the Mezzogiorno in Auden's 'In Praise of Limestone,'" in Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 141-8.

[In the following essay, France examines Auden's historical perspective and juxtaposition of Latin and Gothic Christianity in his "In Praise of Limestone."]

Critics of W. H. Auden's "In Praise of Limestone" have often been lulled by the poem's casual voice into overlooking its seriousness. It has been said, for example, to betray a "frivolity [that] has modulated into a quixotic, religious playfulness" ([Richard] Johnson) or the "indulgent … humor" of a "family portrait of Mother Nature" ([Edward] Callan).

A good reading of "In...

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Patrick Deane (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Within a Field That Never Closes': The Reader in W. H. Auden's 'New Year Letter,'" in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 171-93.

[In the following essay, Deane explores Auden's theoretical assumptions, linguistic techniques, and open-ended relationship with the reader in "New Year Letter."]

In October 1941, the pages of Scrutiny registered the appearance of W. H. Auden's New Year Letter with characteristic acerbity. The long poem from which the volume as a whole took its title came in for particular excoriation, Auden's "wit" being described, somewhat condescendingly, as the sort of thing one might expect from "a theological student at a Scottish...

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James Held (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ironic Harmony: Blues Convention and Auden's 'Refugee Blues,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 139-42.

[In the following essay, Held discusses the significance of Auden's appropriation of blues music convention in "Refugee Blues."]

All art, Walter Pater declared, aspires to the condition of music. However, Pater's oft-quoted dictum hardly anticipates its ironic implementation in W. H. Auden's "Refugee Blues." "Refugee Blues" adapts the conventions of the blues to Auden's portrait of exiles in flight from Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Yet beneath the modifications which Auden grafts to it, the poem retains a core of integrity as a blues in...

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Alan Jacobs (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Auden's Local Culture," in Hudson Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 543-68.

[In the following essay, Jacobs examines Auden's communitarian sympathies and moral vision. According to Jacobs, "Auden understood both the costs and benefits of choosing to cultivate local knowledge and local attachments better than almost any political thinker writing about such issues today."]


One of the more interesting developments in American political and social thought in the last decade or so has been the emergence of communitarianism—in large part because, though no one knows exactly what communitarianism is, people do tend to think good thoughts about the notion of...

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Nicholas Jenkins (essay date 1 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Goodbye, 1939," in New Yorker, April 1, 1996, pp. 88, 90-4, 96-7.

[In the following essay, Jenkins provides an overview of Auden's literary career and the significance of his expatriation in the United States.]

No episode in the century's English-speaking literary world came as more of a surprise than the poet W. H. Auden's abrupt departure, in January of 1939, from Britain for the United States. Auden was the first major English-language poet to be born in the twentieth century (in 1907); now, as the century drains away, it seems likely that he will turn out to be the only poet of world stature born in England in the last hundred years. He is more widely read than he has been for many years,...

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Charles Berger (essay date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Auden in Time of War," in Raritan, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1997, pp. 79-89.

[In the following essay, Berger examines the content, structure, and central themes of "In Time of War."]

Auden's poetry of the thirties is suffused by a sense of diffuse crisis, or crises—economic, social, military—so there is no clear line of demarcation separating peace and war in his poetry. In fact, there is very little represented peace in the early poems; moments of refuge are always shadowed by the sense of what they defend against. Early on, Auden tries to imagine the role of poetry during revolution, or in a postrevolutionary society. This is the plot of "A Summer Night," written in 1933. By the end of the...

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Robert L. Caserio (essay date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Auden's New Citizenship," in Raritan, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1997, pp. 90-103.

[In the following essay, Caserio discusses Auden's attitudes toward civic allegiance, the significance of his emigration to the United States, and the association of homosexuality with exile.]

W. H. Auden underwent two conversions: one to Christianity, one to American citizenship. We treat the first conversion seriously. We have no serious account of the second. Is it a sign of our confused or divided attitudes towards citizenship that we gloss over the poet's manner of belonging to—or of appearing to own—one political state rather than another? Yes, we acknowledge Auden's civic voices. But as we work out the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Boly, John R. "Auden and the Romantic Tradition in The Age of Anxiety." Daedalus 111, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 149-71.

Examines Auden's reaction against and assimilation of romanticism as reflected in the major themes, artistic concerns, and structure of The Age of Anxiety.

Bozorth, Richard R. "'But Who Would Get It?': Auden and the Codes of Poetry and Desire." ELH: English Literary History 62, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 709-27.

Explores the significance of private allusions, coded language, and ambiguity in Auden's poetry as an expression of his homosexuality.

Bryant, Marsha. "Auden and the 'Arctic Stare': Documentary as Public Collage in Letters from Iceland." Journal of Modern Literature XVII, No. 4 (Spring 1991): 537-65.

Examines Auden's interest in documentary filmmaking and the politics of representation as reflected in Letters from Iceland.

Christianson, Scott R. "The Poetics and Politics of Eliot's Influence on W. H. Auden." Essays in Literature 19, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 98-113.

Considers the genealogical and political influence of T. S. Eliot's poetry and literary criticism on the development of Auden's own poetry and critical perspective.

Mendelson, Edward. "'We Are Changed By What We Change': The Power of Politics of Auden's Revisions." The Romanic Review 86, No. 3 (May 1995): 527-35.

Examines the ethical significance of Auden's frequent revisions of his poetry as indicative of his respect for the politics and shaping power of language.

Pascoe, David. "Auden and the Aesthetics of Detection." Essays in Criticism 43, No. 1 (January 1993): 33-58.

Explores Auden's interest in English detective fiction and elements of the genre in his poetry.

Riffaterre, Michael. "Textuality: W. H. Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts.'" In Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws, pp. 1-13. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986.

Examines the principles and function of literary intertextuality through analysis of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts."

Spears, Monroe K. "The Divine Comedy of W. H. Auden." Sewanee Review 90, No. 1 (Winter 1982): 53-72.

Examines the development of Auden's poetry and artistic concerns in relation to the three books of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Spiegelman, Willard. "The Rake, The Don, The Flute: W. H. Auden as Librettist." Parnassus 10. No. 2 (Fall-Winter 1982): 171-87.

Discusses Auden's interest in operatic forms and the artistic principles applied to his adaptations of The Rake's Progress, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute.