Wystan Hugh Auden

The English-born American poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His works center on moral issues and evidence strong political, social, and psychological orientations.

In the 1930s W. H. Auden became famous when he was described by literary journalists as the leader of the so-called "Oxford Group," a circle of young English poets influenced by literary Modernism, in particular by the aesthetic principles espoused by T. S. Eliot. Rejecting the traditional poetic forms favored by their Victorian predecessors, the Modernist poets favored concrete imagery and free verse. In his work, Auden applied conceptual and scientific knowledge to traditional verse forms and metrical patterns while assimilating the industrial countryside of his youth.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. His father was the medical officer of the city of Birmingham and a psychologist. His mother was a devout Anglican, and the combination of religious and scientific or analytic themes are implicit throughout Auden's work. He was educated at St. Edmund's preparatory school, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who later gained a wide reputation as a novelist. At Oxford University, fellow undergraduates were Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, who, with Auden, formed the collective variously labeled the Oxford Group or the "Auden Generation."

At school Auden was interested in science, and at Oxford, where he studied English, his chief interest was Anglo-Saxon. He disliked the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats, whom he was inclined to refer to as "Kelly and Sheets." This break with the English post-Romantic tradition was important for his contemporaries. It is perhaps still more important that Auden was the first poet in English to use the imagery (and sometimes the terminology) of clinical psychoanalysis.

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Early Travels and Publications

A small volume of his poems was privately printed by Stephen Spender in 1928, while Auden was still an undergraduate. Poems was published a year later by Faber and Faber (of which T. S. Eliot was a director). The Orators (1932), a volume consisting of odes, parodies of school speeches and sermons, and the strange, almost surreal "Journal of an Airman" provided a barrage of satire against England, "this country of ours where no one is well." It set the mood for a generation of public school boys who were in revolt against the empire of England and fox hunting.

When he had completed school, Auden traveled in Germany. In 1937 he went with MacNeice to Iceland and in 1938 with Isherwood to China. Literary results of these journeys were Letters from Iceland (1937) and Journey to a War (1939), the first written with MacNeice and the second with Isherwood. Auden also wrote several plays in collaboration, notably 1935's The Dog beneath the Skin (another satire on England) and The Ascent of F 6 (1931). More than a decade later Auden again worked in collaboration—this time with Chester Kallmann on the librettos for several operas, of which the most important was Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951).

In 1939 Auden took up residence in the United States, supporting himself by teaching at various universities. In 1946 he became a U.S. citizen, by which time his literary career had become a series of well-recognized successes. He received the Pulitzer Prize and Bollingen Award and enjoyed his standing as one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University. In his inaugural address, "Making Knowing and Judging," he explored ideas about his vocation as a poet.

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Poetic Themes and Techniques

Auden's early poetry, influenced by his interest in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in psychoanalysis, was sometimes riddle-like, sometimes jargonish and clinical. It also contained private references inaccessible to most readers. At the same time it had a clouded mysteriousness that would disappear in his later poetry. In the 1930s his poetry ceased to be mystifying; still dealing with difficult ideas, however, it could at times remain abstruse. His underlying preoccupation was a search for interpretive systems of analytic thinking and faith. Clues to the earlier poetry are to be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. In the later poems (after "New Year Letter," in which he turns to Christianity), some clues can be traced in the works of SÓren Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other theologians.

Among Auden's highly regarded attributes was the ability to think symbolically and rationally at the same time, so that intellectual ideas weretransformed into a uniquely personal, idiosyncratic, often witty imagistic idiom. He concretized ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the austere outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that is interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love" and "Look Stranger."

Often Auden's poetry may seem a rather marginal criticism of life and society written from the sidelines. Yet sometimes it moves to the center of the time in history in which he and his contemporaries lived. In "The Shield of Achilles" he recreated the anguish of the modern world of totalitarian societies in a poem which holds one particular time in a mirror for all times. Auden was learned and intelligent, a virtuoso of form and technique. In his poetry he realized a lifelong search for a philosophical and religious position from which to analyze and comprehend the individual life in relation to society and to the human condition in general. He was able to express his scorn for authoritarian bureaucracy, his suspicion of depersonalized science, and his belief in a Christian God.

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Later Works

In his final years, Auden wrote the volumes City without Walls, and Many Other Poems, (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). All three works are noted for their lexical range and humanitarian content. Auden's penchant for altering and discarding poems has prompted publication of several anthologies in the decades since his death, September 28, 1973, in Vienna, Austria. The multi-volume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989.

Further Reading on Wystan Hugh Auden

Criticism and interpretation of Auden's works may be found in such studies as Stan Smith, W. H. Auden (1997), R. P. T. Davenport-Hines, Auden (1995), Anthony Hecht, The Hidden Law: the Poetry of W. H. Auden (1993), Allan Edwin Rodway, A Preface to Auden (1984), Edward Callan, Auden: A Carnival of Intellect (1983), Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981), and Charles Osborne, W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (1979). In addition, Auden figures prominently in the autobiographies of some of his contemporaries. See, for example, Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938; rev. ed. 1948), Christopher Isherwood, Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (1938), and Stephen Spender, World within a World (1951). The Oxford Group is examined in Michael O'Neill, Auden, MacNeice, Spender: The Thirties Poetry (1992).