There is little question of W. H. Auden’s importance to Anglo-American literature. His poetry—in a career that ran from the late 1920’s through the early 1970’s—was not only a model of formal grace and flexibility, but illuminated several of the most important issues of the century: the role of ideology (especially in the Depression and World War II), the nature of love and sexual relationships, and the difficulties of the spiritual quest. This new biography by Richard Davenport-Hines presents Auden’s life in some detail, but also manages to include long analyses of the poetry and descriptions of Auden wrestling with these crucial human issues.
Auden’s early years were representative of a number of privileged British poets of his generation. His family provided motivation toward music and religion, but this biography is the first to stress not just Constance Auden’s dominant and negative role in the poet’s life, but his doctor- father’s important influence in furthering Auden’s intellectual and imaginative development (his lifelong interest in psychology, for example).
Education, first at St. Edmund’s preparatory school, and then at Oxford (1925-1928), may have been less important for its academic legacy than for the friends Auden made there—Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender, most prominent among them—who would become “the Auden generation” of younger poets through the 1930’s. After early influences on his verse from William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats, Auden was most affected in the 1920’s by T. S. Eliot, but, as Davenport-Hines shows, this influence was largely “contaminating” to Auden and other younger Anglo- American writers. Auden’s first poetry was as difficult and inaccessible as his model’s, and the most beneficial thing he inherited was Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry. Auden’s best poetry would be formally complex and thematically symbolic, both clear inheritances from Eliot. Auden’s life was a journey, Davenport-Hines shows, with few permanent stops, and no home until the end of his life. In the late 1920’s he spent time abroad, not, as was typical, in Paris, but in Berlin. In the 1930’s, he traveled to Iceland, to China, and to Spain. Recognized early for his poetic talents (he first published Poems in 1930), Auden’s career had the standard interwar trajectory, and the twin flirtations with Freudianism, and then with Marxism.
In 1938, Auden made a crucial decision and emigrated to the United States and to a series of shabby apartments in New York City, where he would spend most of his creative life until his last few months, when he foolishly returned to Oxford. It is interesting that the two most influential poets of the twentieth century in effect exchanged places: Eliot, born in St. Louis, emigrated to England before World War I, to become a British subject, while Auden fled to New York before World War II to become an American citizen. As Eliot found comfort in conservative British institutions (such as royalty and the Church of England), Auden found something stimulating and supportive in the dynamic energy of New York, and his best work was produced there (he would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1948). As Davenport-Hines describes it, exile and isolation assumed important creative functions in Auden’s career. His permanent sense of estrangement, and the suffering that feeling produced, fueled some of his best poetry.
Auden’s career for the next thirty years would be full and productive, if not terribly happy. In addition to his poetry, he produced anthologies (of light verse, aphorisms), he worked in the theater, he and Chester Kallman wrote librettos for operas (as for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in 1947)—he even helped to translate the journal of Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations who was killed in 1961. Auden produced more than three dozen books of poetry and prose in an extraordinarily rich and fruitful career.
Apart from his poetry, his most influential work may have been his criticism, for Auden helped to define the role and significance of modern poetry in a changing world. “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts,” he wrote in 1938, “is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us.” His first collection of critical essays, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (1962), is one of the most important volumes of twentieth century poetry theory, for it helps to anchor that theory at mid-century; “Poetry is reflective art,” Auden wrote; “its existence is proof that man cannot be content...
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