W. H. Auden Analysis


At a time when poets no longer enjoyed the wide readership they once did, W. H. Auden achieved a considerable popular success, his books selling well throughout his lifetime. He was also fortunate in having several sympathetic, intelligent critics to analyze and assess his work. It is true that Auden had his share of detractors, beginning, for example, in the 1930’s with the negative response to his work in the influential journal Scrutiny, and, later, in two essays by Randall Jarrell taking him to task for his various ideological changes. Even today some argue that Auden’s work is uneven or that his later poetry represents a serious decline from the brilliance he demonstrated in the 1930’s. In a sense, his reputation has been granted grudgingly and, by some, with reservations. Despite all this, however, Auden is generally regarded today as one of the major poets of the twentieth century. Several of his lyrics are well established as standard anthology pieces—“Lullaby,” “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,”—but his larger reputation may well rest not on the strength of individual poems but on the impressive range of thought and technical virtuosity found in his work as a whole.

Auden’s poetry is quintessentially the work of a restless, probing intelligence committed to the idea that poise and clearheadedness are possible, indeed necessary, in a world beset by economic, social, and...

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Other Literary Forms

Though known primarily as a poet, W. H. Auden (AWD-ehn) worked in a number of other forms, making him one of the most prolific and versatile poets of his generation. During the 1930’s he wrote one play on his own—The Dance of Death (pb. 1933)—and collaborated on three others with his friend Christopher Isherwood. These retain their interest today both as period pieces and, to a lesser degree, as experimental stage dramas. The best of the plays, The Dog Beneath the Skin: Or, Where Is Francis? (pb. 1935), is an exuberant, wide-ranging work containing some of Auden’s finest stage verse and illustrating many of his early intellectual preoccupations, including his interest in post-Freudian psychology. The other plays, The Ascent of F6 (pb. 1936) and On the Frontier (pr., pb. 1938), are of less interest, especially the latter, which is largely an antifascist propaganda piece. After the 1930’s, Auden turned his dramatic interests toward the opera, writing his first libretto, Paul Bunyan, in 1941 for Benjamin Britten. (The work was not published until 1976, three years after Auden’s death.) His better-known librettos, written in collaboration with Chester Kallman, are The Rake’s Progress (pr., pb. 1951), Elegy for Young Lovers (pr., pb. 1961), The Bassarids (pr., pb. 1966), and Love’s Labour’s Lost (pb. 1972). Little assessment has been made of his librettos and their relationship to his poetry. Auden’s prose writing, by contrast, has been quickly and widely recognized for its range, liveliness, and intelligence. His work includes dozens of essays, reviews, introductions, and lectures written over the span of his career. Many of his best pieces are gathered in The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays (1962) and Forewords and Afterwords (1973); other prose includes The Enchafed Flood (1950) and Secondary Worlds (1969). In addition to his plays, librettos, and prose, Auden wrote for film and radio and worked extensively as an editor and translator. Plays and Other Dramatic Writings by W. H. Auden, 1928-1938, edited by Edward Mendelson, was published by Princeton University Press in 1988. It includes Auden’s collaborations with Christopher Isherwood and works by Auden alone.

Discussion Topics

Determine the characteristics of “anxiety” in the phrase W. H. Auden made famous in the title The Age of Anxiety.

Are Auden’s strongly asserted political beliefs and his tendency to inwardness contradictory?

Show how “As I Walked out One Evening” is not a traditional love poem.

Why did Auden, much more a student of German culture, focus his attention on Spain at the time of its civil war?

With respect to “Musée des Beaux Arts,” how would you answer the question: “Is this how things must be?”

Explain whether The Sea and the Mirror is or is not an attempt to modernize William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623).


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. W. H. Auden: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Arguably the most valuable anthology of Auden’s criticism in print because of its comprehensive look at the life, times, and work of the poet, sometimes mistakenly considered a glib or arch-modern poet. Essays elucidate the biographical undercurrents of Auden’s aesthetic vision with frank consideration of his homosexual relationships and conversion to Christianity. Included is Edward Mendelson’s seminal essay, “Auden’s Revision of Modernism.”

Buell, Frederick. W. H. Auden as a Social Poet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. Arguing that Auden’s poetry is an ironic vision of social and moral responsibility, Buell focuses on the 1930’s, when Auden was forming his social views. Contains an interesting analysis of the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s ideas about theater on Auden, when he lived in Berlin. Contains footnotes and an index.

Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Carpenter had access to private and unpublished material in crafting this comprehensive and compelling critical biography of the poet. It is the key source to biographical detail with which an Auden researcher should begin to situate Auden’s poetry within his world and worldview.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Auden. New York: Pantheon, 1996. This biography of Auden is also a history of some of the pressing and largely unresolved human and literary problems Auden faced in this lifetime.

Fuller, John....

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