W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 1)
Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–
English-born American of Icelandic ancestry, Auden is an international man of letters, a poet, playwright, and critic. He is primarily interested in man's relation to society and to God. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
Auden had the vitality, the sheer poetic exuberance, to be able to impose his own authentic accent on all he touched. His bewildering use of imagery drawn from English public school life, his ambivalent metaphors from military manoeuvres and mountain climbing, his clinical obsessions and his psychological jargon, his private jokes and sudden clowning—all these were often bewildering; but they looked like the beginnings of a significant new poetic style. He drew on the jogging impromptus of Skelton and the movement of Middle English alliterative verse to provide new kinds of life for his poems. Music hall, folk ballad and jazz lyric were other elements he brought into his verse, particularly after he settled in America. He seemed to be well on the way to developing an excitingly rich poetic idiom.
He has never quite fulfilled the expectations he aroused, though he has written some of the best lyrics of our time. He rapidly shed his psychologicoeconomic diagnosis of the troubles of the time, and with it went some of his more irritating English public school imagery. He became more meditative, more concerned with archetypal images and situations, more religious in tone and feeling and eventually more specifically Christian. At the same time his gift for light verse and his taste for clowning both developed steadily, and one was presented with the odd spectacle of a religious poet with an irresistible impulse to make jokes.
David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 47.
[W. H. Auden] is his own anthology, the typical poet of the age, the Explainer, and all that. He really is all that. He is lots of other things, one of the few masters of modern speech, one of the great practitioners of English prosody, a true custodian of the tradition. In the Serious World he is already aere perennius, something which is not absolutely certain about Eliot, for instance.
Karl Shapiro, "A Change of Air," in the symposium "On W. H. Auden," in Ken-you Review, Winter, 1964.
Of the intellectualist poets of the 1930s and after, W. H. Auden alone appeared to have found a personal language in the modern idiom and to be capable of accepting its restrictive conventions without loss of poetic stature. Auden settled in the United States after the beginning of the Second World War, and became as much a part of the American literary scene as T. S. Eliot did of the English. But through at least the title of one of his post-war books The Age of Anxiety (1948) Auden diagnosed the malady of the period and offered it a self-pitying name. Some of the best poetry of Auden's early period is in the plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), On the Frontier (1938).
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 193-94.
[W. H.] Auden is still intellectually and technically open and fluid (these are not polite euphemisms for 'fickle') to a degree that is not evident in any of those who were once known with him as 'the poets of the thirties'. His technical fluidity may be seen in his exercises in various poetic forms, especially since 1940. He has practised, for instance, in terza rima, the villanelle, the sestina and the ballade. From this point of view the long poems New Year Letter (1941), The Sea and the Mirror (1945), For the Time Being (1945) and The Age of Anxiety (1948) are all aspects of the same formal search.
Yet this technical openness probably derives in part from a more radical quality, from an intellectual quixotry and eclecticism. Auden is something of an intellectual jackdaw, picking up bright pebbles of ideas so as to fit them into exciting...
(The entire section is 3,472 words.)