W. H. Auden, one of the very greatest twenteth-century English poets, was born in York in 1907. His father George was a doctor, who would become School Medical Officer and Professor of Public Health in Birmingham. His mother Constance was a nurse, musical and religious in a High Church fashion that left its mark on later Auden's self-ironizing love of verbal and intellectual display (“Mother wouldn't like it”, he would say in middle age); when he was eight, she taught him the words and music of the great love-potion scene in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, so that they could sing the duet (Auden was Isolde). After school at St Edmund's, Hindhead, Surrey (1915-20) where he met Christopher Isherwood, and Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk (1920-5), he went to Christ Church, Oxford, finally switching to English (his tutor was Nevill Coghill). Auden graduated with an undistinguished third, but with a burgeoning reputation as a poet, as is clear from recollections in Stephen Spender's autobiography World Within World.
Spender set up on his printing press a collection of Auden's early work, entitled Poems (1928). In this volume one glimpses a capacity to fuse icy diagnosis and complicit empathy. This method of dealing with social and psychological malaise helped to give Auden's early work its mesmerising impact on his contemporaries. As Stuart Hampshire writes, “Auden's natural, and perhaps inherited, attitude is that of a clinician in a white coat, expecting epidemics of madness and hypochondria, the slow poisons that affect the whole political body and are natural disturbances of the mind”. In Poems (1930), and the longer works Paid on Both Sides (1930; 2nd edn. 1933) and The Orators (1932), Auden describes a stagnant society that is also a personal and political mindscape. He developed a style, the Audenesque, an only too imitable manner, characterised by a pointed use of the definite article, bizarre similes and knowing adjectival phrases. “Consider this and in our time” typically recommends and adopts the aloof posture of the “hawk” or “helmeted airman” looking down at a class-stratified, doomed society; in “The Watershed” the “you” addressed by the poem (at some level a surrogate of the poet) is cut off, directionless, able only to receive curt notice of impending “danger”. Defining the tone of the poetry is difficult: love poems that seem frozen or poker-faced may conceal a laconic romanticism in a style at times indebted to Laura Riding; the political vision swithers between prophetic gravity and ex-public school joshing (especially in The Orators). But the impact of the poetry is electric: a heady brew of coded guilt about class privilege, “crooked” allusions to homosexuality, images of spies, frontiers, and industrial landscapes, and post-Freudian ideas about the perverting consequences of repression. At the same time Auden saw that the “progress of man seems to be in a direction away from nature”, that a sense of separation is inseparable from the development of consciousness. Indeed, separateness runs through his poetry, as well as the exploration of possible solutions to the condition. A visit to Berlin in 1928, during the period of the Weimar Republic, allowed Auden freer expression of his homosexuality (in his journal he made a list of “Boys had. Germany 1928-29”), growing awareness of the political turbulence of Europe, and greater belief in the doctrine of obedience to one's own impulses (communicated to him by John Layard, an unstable follower of Homer Lane). This last belief is kept severely under check by Auden in his political thinking, but the desire for liberation, for a better way of life, drives his work throughout the thirties.
From 1930 to 1935 Auden – ever the teacher – worked as a schoolmaster, first at Larchfield Academy, Helensburg in Scotland (1930-2), then at Downs School, Colwell in Northumberland (1932-35). He was happy during this period, especially at Downs, but storm-clouds were massing over Europe, after the Nazis, under Hitler, came to power in Germany in 1933. Though Auden was homosexual, in 1935 he married Erika Mann, the daughter of Thomas Mann, simply so that she could get a passport and escape from Germany: a characteristic example of Auden's unexpected acts of generosity to others. In “A Summer Night”, published in Look Stranger! (1936), Auden celebrates private elation, but imagines the moon climbing “the European sky” and, made newly aware of public “violence”, looks ahead to a revolutionary flood that will do away with the old order of which he and his friends are members. Yet he prays that the cries of the drowned will rise “In unlamenting song”. What is clear from this piece is the central importance in Auden's work of “love”, understood by him in the thirties as a potent mishmash of several things: sexual desire; a post-Freudian equivalent to the fashionable Marxist idea of historical necessity; and – if only subliminally – a proto-Christian version of Agape. With Isherwood Auden wrote a number of plays, such as The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) produced by the Group Theatre. Influenced by Brecht and German cabaret, these plays mingle light verse and high lyricism, along with prose dialogue and Audenesque preaching, and contain some of the poet's finest writing in the period (“Stop all the clocks”, for instance, from The Ascent of F6 (1938)) or the opening chorus of The Dog Beneath the Skin, “The summer holds”).
Writing plays probably helped to contribute to the more lucid manner characteristic of Auden's mid-to-late thirties poems. His work becomes at once more journalistic and more explicitly conceptual. In 1937 he published Spain in a pamphlet, the royalties going towards Medical Aid for Spain. Though he visited Spain and his poem implicitly sides with the Republican cause, it is among the twentieth century's more significant political poems, not because of any partisan rhetoric but because of its clear-sighted awareness of the cost exacted by commitment: “History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon”, for instance, disowned later by Auden as equating “goodness with success”, does no such thing. Rather, it indicates awareness that in a historical struggle the course of future events will be profoundly affected by the outcome. Auden's later dislike of the poem, possibly induced by some harsh criticisms levelled at it by George Orwell, is among the first stirrings of an almost Yeatsian compulsion in him to unmake and remake former poetic selves; readers of thirties work are well advised to consult Edward Mendelson's superb edition The English Auden (1977) for texts as they first appeared. So far as Spain is concerned, a significant biographical fact is that Auden was, as he put it, “upset by many things [he] saw or heard about”, including “the treatment of priests”. He realised quickly that ideas and idealism were one thing, the horrors of civil war quite another. In 1936 he had also visited Iceland with MacNeice, a journey recorded a year later in Letters from Iceland, but this escape from the political urgencies of world events did not last long. In 1938 he went to China with Isherwood. The two friends were covering the Sino-Japanese war, and wrote about it in Journey to a War (1939), Auden's contribution being his lucid, disturbing sonnet sequence “In Time of War” (“And maps can really point to places / Where life is evil now. / Nanking. Dachau”) and verse “Commmentary”, in which the war is regarded as “the local variant of a struggle in which all are profoundly implicated”.
Auden was tired of being a poetic mascot of the Left, and two major poems bring down the curtain on his thirties involvement in socio-political critique and consciousness-raising: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, a poem that honours the memory of a great poet whose reactionary ideas are forgiven because ”poetry makes nothing happen”, and “September 1, 1939”, a work that calls time on the hopes of a “low dishonest decade”. If in this poem Auden is close to being the “pink old Liberal” which in “Letter to Lord Byron” (1936) he prophesied he would become, he is, more intriguingly, on the verge of the return to Christianity which marks a decisive change in his outlook and poetic style. A line such as “We must love one another or die”, though again condemned by the later Auden, is not far from a central tenet of the New Testament. Like others, Auden felt that the evil embodied in Hitler's Nazism required a “Heaven to cry to”, and he found a way back to Christianity via Kierkegaard whose movement in Either/Or from the “aesthetic” to the “ethical” struck a chord with the English poet. “English”, and yet in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood set off for their most momentous journey, to America, where both would settle, Auden in New York, where he met Chester Kallman (1921-75), with whom he lived for most of the rest of his life, collaborating with him on the libretti of several operas. Auden's American period is marked by a deliberate sloughing off of his thirties manner. The diagnostic manner is still present in the long poem New Year Letter (1941), but Auden prefers a tone that is more openly didactic, less rooted in the dazzling transformations of common experience found in the earlier work. Not all his readers adjusted well to the change. Stephen Spender found in the American poetry “a lack of a centre of the poet's own experience from which to write, ... a growing inability to experience things in his poetry”.
The charge contains some truth, especially in relation to Auden's more abstract pieces; much later, Seamus Heaney would regret the loss of power in “the magnificently sane, meditative, judicial” post-thirties work. But as Auden came to terms with America, which he called “the Great Void where you have to balance without handholds”, he began to write with formal and often lyrical virtuosity a poetry that constantly undercuts anything portentous. In his criticism (best encountered in his study of the Romantic tradition, The Enchafed Flood (1950) and in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (1963)), Auden argues that poetry “must praise all it can for being and for happening”. First sounded in a late sonnet in “In Time of War”, this Rilkean motif occurs in poem after poem, finding most eloquent expression in “In Praise of Limestone”: whether Auden is delighting in “the baffle of being”, or deploring man's inhumanity to man in “The Shield of Achilles”, his poetry, while disclaiming the power to make anything happen, is itself a “a way of happening”. His most important collections and poems include For the Time Being (1944), containing “The Sea and the Mirror”, his meditation on Shakespeare's The Tempest; The Age of Anxiety (1947); The Shield of Achilles (1955); About the House (1965); and City Without Walls (1969). A vital conviction in these poems is the downgrading of poetry; “fundamentally frivolity” Alan Ansen records him saying of it. Auden continually implies that poetry, like music in “Music Is International”, is:
not to be confused
With anything really important
Like feeding strays or looking pleased when caught
By a bore or a hideola.
The poetry balances on a tightrope at such moments, refusing to disallow aesthetic delight even as it counsels in favour of ethical responsibility. In fact, much of his post-thirties work bears out the relevance to Auden's practice of a remark of Paul Valery which the English poet quotes under “Writing” in A Certain World (1970): “Skilled verse is the art of a profound sceptic”. The more deadly serious Auden is being in later work, it sometimes seems, the more frivolous or eccentric the “Uncle Wiz” manner.
Auden lived in America until 1972. After working with the U.S. forces in Europe in 1945 as a civilian research officer, he taught in various American colleges, settling in St Mark's Place, New York in 1953. In 1956 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford for five years, which required the giving of a set number of public lectures. Places are important for Auden, who was far more rooted in his middle years. He rented a house in Ischia in Italy every summer from 1949 till 1957, marking his departure with his poem “Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno”, marked by a funny, sharp-eyed weighing of differences between northern and southern cultures. After winning an Italian literary prize in 1957 worth “twenty million lire” (Auden's emphases), he bought a house in the village of Kirchstetten in Austria, where he regularly spent part of each year and was extremely happy, writing of himself as “a transplant / from overseas” who was at last “dominant / over three acres”. In 1972 he returned to Oxford to live in a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church College, proving to be a somewhat disconcerting presence. Humphrey Carpenter quotes him as saying to visitors, “Of course, everyone pees in his bath” and describes him refusing to listen to certain conversational topics, such as dreams – on the grounds that the “subconscious is inherently boring” (W. H. Auden: A Biography, 1981).
Auden died of a heart attack in 1973 in Vienna. Oliver Sacks gets as close as anyone to suggesting the immense gift of understanding and making sense which this remarkable writer extends to his readers:
He became a living mirror for me – someone who could detect and encourage the perception of new vistas, images, and trains-of-thought long before I myself was conscious of them. And if he did this with me, he did it with a hundred others. He showed us ourselves, he drew us into greater possibilities of being. (Quoted from Carpenter).
Editions of Auden’s Works
Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson.
London: Faber and Faber. 1976; revised 1991; 3rd
edition, 2007. (Collects the poems, including the longer works, in
Auden’s preferred - and often revised - versions; with some late
Auden, W. H. Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber. 1979; revised 2009. (Provides 119 of the more important shorter poems, along with The Sea and the Mirror as a 2009 addition; reprints early versions of some poems later revised or suppressed by Auden.)
Mendelson, Edward, ed. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939. London: Faber and Faber. 1977. (Valuable collection of Auden’s early writings in the texts as they stood in 1939 before Auden’s many revisions and suppressions.)
A multi-volume annotated Complete Works of W. H. Auden is in progress, edited by Edward Mendelson and published by Princeton University Press in the USA and by Faber in the UK. Volumes already published include the Plays (1988), the Libretti (1993), and six volumes of the Prose (1996-2015). Princeton also publish a distinct series of annotated Critical Editions of individual Auden texts, so far including the Lectures on Shakespeare (2000), The Sea and the Mirror (2003; both ed. A. Kirsch), The Age of Anxiety (2011) and For the Time Being (2013; both ed. A. Jacobs).
Citation: O'Neill, Michael. "W. H. Auden". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 July 2001 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5107, accessed 02 December 2021.]