Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh)
AUDEN, W(ystan) H(ugh)
(b. 21 February 1907 in York, England; d. 29 September 1973 in Vienna, Austria), poet, playwright, librettist, critic, translator, editor, lecturer, and teacher.
The youngest of three sons of George Augustus Auden and Constance Rosalie Bicknell, Auden was brought up in Birmingham, England, where his father was a school medical officer and later a professor of public health and where his mother was a college-educated nurse who raised the family in the Anglican tradition. As a boy attending schools in Surrey and Norfolk, Auden was fascinated by machines, medicine, and geology. At Christ Church, Oxford University, he studied science but then switched to English, graduating in 1928. At Oxford, he became known as one of the best poets of a generation that included the top left-wing writers of the 1920s.
Rebelling against his traditional background, Auden explored the ideas of Marx and Freud and, with his father's help, spent the year after college in Germany, where the writer Christopher Isherwood, a former schoolmate, visited him. In Berlin, Auden felt freer to apply his radicalism, developing a homosexual lifestyle that expressed his identity. In 1935, aware of the growing menace of Nazism, he married the writer Erika Mann (daughter of the author Thomas Mann), but the union was only a formal arrangement. The British passport Mann acquired upon her marriage enabled her to leave Germany for England. From 1930 to 1935 Auden worked as a schoolmaster in England, where he cofounded the Group Theatre in 1932 and worked with the General Post Office film unit in 1935.
Auden's early writings and plays, some of which were collaborations with Isherwood, established him as a skilled writer. In 1936 and 1937 Auden traveled to Iceland and then drove an ambulance in Spain during that country's civil war. He and Isherwood visited China in 1938 to report on the war there. In 1939 the two went to the United States, where Auden met a bright young student from Brooklyn College named Chester Kallman. "Mr. Right," as Auden called Kallman, became his life companion. In 1946 Auden became a naturalized U.S. citizen, settling in New York City with Kallman.
Auden found success on both the academic scene and in publishing. Among his teaching assignments were stints at the New School for Social Research (1940–1941 and 1946–1947), the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1941–1942), Swarthmore College (1942–1945), Bennington College (1946), Barnard College (1947), Smith College (1953), and finally, back in England, at Oxford University (1956–1961). Auden's main interest was writing, however, and his most notable publications are The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), the Pulitzer Prize–winning Age of Anxiety (1947), The Enchafed Flood (1950), and The Shield of Achilles (1955). During the 1960s Auden published prolifically, including Homage to Clio (1960); A Book of Aphorisms (1960, with Louis Kronenberger); The Dyer's Hand (1962), a collection of essays and lectures; About the House (1965); Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957 (1966); Collected Longer Poems (1968); Secondary Worlds (1968), his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures from the University of Kent; City Without Walls and Many Other Poems (1969); and A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970).
By 1960 Auden's writing already had brought him an ample harvest of awards, including the King's Gold Medal for poetry (1937), Guggenheim Fellowships (1942 and 1945), the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1945), the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (1948), the Bollingen Prize in poetry (1954), the National Book Award (1956), the Feltrinelli Prize (1957), and the Guinness Poetry Award (1959, shared with Robert Lowelland Edith Sitwell). With money from the Feltrinelli Prize, Auden bought a farmhouse outside Vienna and spent most of his summers there from 1957 on, wintering in New York City at 77 Saint Mark's Place, between First and Second Avenues, where he remained until 1972.
Auden also made significant contributions as a translator. With the Scandinavian scholar Leif Sjöberg, he produced Markings, the journal of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (translated from the Swedish and published in 1964), and translations of other Swedish poets, including Pär Lagerkvist and Gunnar Ekelöf.He cotranslated works by the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the playwright Bertolt Brecht from German, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard from Danish, and other works from French and Old Norse.
Auden's relationship with Kallman was not as successful as his career, and by 1941 it became clear that the men were neither sexually compatible nor monogamous. By 1963 Kallman, who was disappointed with his own career as a poet, no longer wanted to spend winters in New York City with Auden, preferring to live with lovers in Athens. In despair, in September 1964 Auden went to Berlin to live for half a year, but the city had changed, and his spirits were not lifted. Despite their unhappiness, Auden and Kallman's relationship lasted thirty-four years. Auden had enhanced his love of music through Kallman, and some of their most positive moments had been spent collaborating on opera libretti, including one for The Rake's Progress, by Igor Stravinsky (premiered in Venice in 1951), and another for The Bassarids, by Hans Werner Henze (premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1966).
Auden became deeply disillusioned with politics, not least during the U.S. presidential campaigns of 1964, when his poem "September 1, 1939" was misquoted and used out of context in a television advertisement by Lyndon B. Johnson, accusing his opponent of supporting the Vietnam War. In 1968 Auden claimed that if he were forced to choose between voting for Johnson and for Richard Nixon, he could vote for neither. Nevertheless, he never gave up on politics and wrote frequently about the perversion of language by politicians. Although he was surrounded in the 1960s by hippies in his neighborhood on Saint Mark's Place, he said that he admired their spirit but feared that they had not read any of his poems (except perhaps "The Platonic Blow," published without permission in the magazine Fuck You).
Oddly enough, although Auden had felt obliged through most of his adult years to express his homosexual desires only through his poetry, the 1967 passage of social reforms in Britain decriminalizing homosexuality impressed him little: most gays had managed all right, he thought, without such a law. Earlier, when the English paperback edition of the British writer D. H. Lawrence's erotic novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was prosecuted for obscenity in 1960, he had wanted to testify that the novel was pornographic.
Auden had been seriously addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, and amphetamines for years, and these substances began to take their toll. Friends noticed that in his later years Auden's appearance changed dramatically, another result of a health problem he had endured since early adulthood. Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome had a thickening and wrinkling effect on the skin of his forehead, face, scalp, hands, and feet. It did not threaten his mental faculties, but there was no treatment. Auden's friend, the influential thinker Hannah Arendt, was concerned about him. She had just been widowed when, in November 1970, he asked her to marry him. (Erika Mann had died in 1969.) It saddened Arendt to decline, but she knew that it was not a feasible suggestion, as did a male acquaintance in New York whom Auden asked to move in with him. Auden soon found himself living alone, which did not appeal to him, and he accepted the position that Oxford University offered him in 1972, to move back as an honorary fellow of Christ Church. But the university life there no longer suited him, and the academic community found his unconventional ways unacceptable.
In the summer of 1973 Auden returned to his house in Kirchstetten, Austria, where he had summered since 1948, and on 28 September gave a successful poetry reading in Vienna for the Austrian Society for Literature. Sometime that night, in his hotel room, Auden died in his sleep from heart failure. He was discovered in his hotel room by Chester Kallman. The older poet, who was scheduled to return to Oxford that day, had never failed to love or support his life partner and did so also in his will. Kallman, who was in poor health, died fifteen months later, at age fifty-four. Auden was buried in Austria.
Auden's papers are housed at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Various manuscripts are also housed in collections at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania; the Bodleian Library of Oxford University; the British Museum; the Lockwood Memorial Library in Buffalo, New York; and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. Biographies include Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981). Full-length books about Auden include Richard Davenport-Hines, Auden (1996); Stan Smith, W. H. Auden (1997); John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (1998); and Edward Mendelson, Early Auden (2000) and Later Auden (2000). For information about specific time periods or events in Auden's life, see Dorothy J. Farnan, Auden in Love: The Intimate Story of a Lifelong Love Affair (1984); Katharine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins, eds., The Map of All My Youth: Early Works, Friends and Influences (1990); and Norman Page, Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years (2000). Articles of particular interest include Richard R. Bozorth, "Auden's Games of Knowledge," Between Men—Between Women: Lesbian and Gay Studies (2001). Web sites include the Auden Society at http://www.audensociety.org. Obituaries are in the New York Times (30 Sept., 4 Oct., and 5 Oct. 1973), the Detroit Free Press (30 Sept. 1973), and Time (8 Oct. 1973).