Auden, W. H. (1907–1973)

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AUDEN, W. H. (1907–1973)


British poet.

The leading younger British poet of the 1930s, W. H. Auden became one of the most influential English-language writers of his time. Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, on 21 February 1907, and educated at Gresham's School, Holt, and Christ Church, Oxford. Shaped by modernist experimentalism, and drawing on his time in Weimar Berlin and his reading of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, Auden's early work combined a focus on psychosexual disorder with a sense of acute historical anxiety. With striking images of modern industrial landscape and a tone that spoke to readers' anxieties about economic crisis and the rise of fascism, volumes like Poems (1930), The Orators (1932), and Look, Stranger! (1937) made Auden the preeminent figure in a group of young British writers sympathetic with communism, including Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice.

Auden's "Spain, 1937," inspired by his visit to the front during the Spanish civil war, became the most famous English poem to confront the threat of fascism, but it marked the peak of his identification with leftist politics. His most celebrated work of the late 1930s—poems like "September 1, 1939," and "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939)—instead sought to affirm the apolitical value of art in the face of impending world war. Auden's 1939 emigration to the United States marked his disavowal of any voice as a poet of the left; his espousal of existentialist Protestantism and adoption in 1946 of U.S. citizenship distanced him further from the English literary establishment. Auden's major long poems of the 1940s—"New Year Letter" (1941), "The Sea and the Mirror" (1944), and The Age of Anxiety (1947)—disappointed those who had valued his more directly political poetry. Nonetheless, his Pulitzer Prize for 1948—one of many such honors over the course of his career—confirmed his stature in the United States. There was no disagreeing about Auden's importance among contemporary existentialist writers, or about the formal ambition of his poetry, which drew inspiration from texts that ranged from medieval alliterative poetry to the prose of Henry James. At the same time, his work of the 1940s was often strikingly personal in its grappling with faith and love, particularly his relationship with Chester Kallman (1921–1975), whom he had met in 1939 and lived with for the remainder of his life.

The later Auden wrote that he aspired to be "a minor Atlantic Goethe"—a claim of characteristic modesty and self-assurance. Volumes like Nones (1951), The Shield of Achilles (1955), and Homage to Clio (1960) mix masterful light verse with some of his most morally challenging poetry. Present throughout is a deep ambivalence about art and language, which Auden saw as equally capable of honoring the sacred and corrupting civil society in an age of manipulative mass media. His late poetry is often comic and apparently casual, but these qualities mask formal and conceptual subtlety. In "Thanksgiving for a Habitat" (1963), for example, he devoted one poem to every room of his house in Kirchstetten, Austria, dedicating each to a friend, and the sequence playfully undoes distinctions between public and private, serious and trivial. In later years Auden also produced much important literary criticism, most notably on William Shakespeare, and significant achievements as a librettist. He had already worked with Benjamin Britten on Paul Bunyan in 1941, but his writing for opera intensified in collaboration with Kallman, on the libretto for Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951); Auden and Kallman also wrote libretti for Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers (1961) and The Bassarids (1966), as well as English versions of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni.

Auden's significance in literary history has been defined largely by his centrality to British writing of the 1930s, and by his authorship of some of the most famous poems to address the crises of the West in the twentieth century. But his enormously diverse output includes signal achievements in an array of literary genres and modes—not only some of the twentieth century's finest religious verse, but also some of its most memorable love poetry in English, much of it remarkably candid in its concern with Eros and homosexual identity. Auden's most enduring influence on later poets remains his technical virtuosity, which extended from free verse to virtually every available English verse form; in addition to his highly varied longer works, his elegies, odes, and sonnets are among the most accomplished of the twentieth century. Following his death in Vienna on 28 September 1973, Auden was buried near his home in Kirchstetten.

See alsoAntifascism; Modernism.


Auden, W. H. The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays. New York, 1962.

——. The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939. Edited by Edward Mendelson. London, 1977.

——. Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson. New York, 1991.

Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. London, 1981.

Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s. Princeton, N.J., 1976.

Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. New York, 1981.

——. Later Auden. New York, 1999.

Smith, Stan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Richard R. Bozorth