Wystan Hugh Auden

W. H. Auden was born in February of 1907, in York, England. Throughout his life he published approximately 400 poems and 400 essays and reviews, that were all extremely wide-ranging in topic and form. Additionally, he wrote plays and worked on documentary films.

W.H. Auden


Life Facts

  • Wyston Hugh Auden was born in February of 1907, in York, England.
  • Auden became versed in all poetic techniques.
  • He worked as a reviewer, lecturer, and essayist.
  • Auden served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
  • In 1973, after giving a reading of his poems in Vienna, Austria, Auden died. 

Interesting Facts

  • He exhibited poetic talent as a young boy.
  • He disliked Romantic poets like Byron, Keats, and Shelley.
  • Auden created and was part of the “Auden Group” in university.
  • He traveled to many different countries including Iceland and Spain.
  • His final works were, ‘Epistle to a Godson’ and ‘Thank You, Fog’.


Famous Poems by W.H. Auden

Musée de Beaux Arts’ discusses the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in order to speak more broadly about the impact of suffering on humankind. he title of the poem is drawn from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. It is filled with rich, memorable images and moving language.

 

‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ was written in 1939 just after W.B. Yeats’ death. It focuses on his contributions as well as the long-lasting importance of his poetry. As the poem progresses, Auden considers what purpose poetry has for the average reader, what it can do, and whether it’s worth writing. 

 

‘The Shield of Achilles’ is considered to be one of Auden’s best poems. Throughout the text, Achilles’ shield, as featured in Homer’s Iliad, is described. The first section of the poem details the making of the shield and what scenes were depicted upon it. By the end, Achilles’ mother is described, as is her reaction to the fate that awaits her son.

 

‘September 1, 1939’ was written as WWII was beginning.  It was intentionally structured to mimic Yeats’s ‘Easter, 1916’. Just like Yeats’ work, Auden’s discuses an important historical event. The first parts of the poem speak the failures playing out on the world stage, and the second alludes to something more hopeful in the future. 

 

‘The Unknown Citizen’ is one of W.H. Auden’s most popular works. It describes, disturbingly, through the form of a dystopian report, the life of a nameless man. Throughout, he discusses individuality in modern society and the all-powerful nature of a faceless government. The poem is as relevant today as it was when it was written.

 


Early Life

Wyston Hugh Auden was born in February of 1907, in York, England. He was one of three sons and would grow up strongly influenced by his parent’s belief systems and careers. George Auden, W.H. Auden’s father, was both a medical officer and a psychologist, and his mother, Constance, was a devoted member of the Church of England. Religion was deeply influential on the young Auden would show itself time and time again in his work when he reached maturity. As a boy at his church and as a young man he was educated at St. Edmund’s preparatory school. It was there that he first developed his interest in poetry and lost his devotion to religion.

 

It was while he was in school at St. Edmunds that he met Christopher Isherwood, a boy who would grow up into a truly prolific novelist, and a life long friend. It was also at St. Edmunds that Auden’s first poems were published. They appeared in his school’s magazine in 1923.

 

It was clear from the start of his schooling that he was a naturally talented poet. He became versed in all poetic techniques and forms and became known for working contemporary events and everyday speech into his verse. From a young age, the influences on Auden’s poetic works were clear. He studied poems by writers such as Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and Gerald Manley Hopkins. He also professed a strong dislike for the Romantic poets, writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron. Auden was known to be a funny, generous, and empathetic friend as well as a punctual student and writer.

 

He began university in 1925 at Christ Church, Oxford where he initially intended to study biology.  By his second year at Oxford, he had switched to English. While in school he formed a number of close friendships with other writers. These would include, Stephen Spender Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, the four have been referred to as the “Auden Group.” Auden graduated from university in 1928.


Literary Career

Auden’s first volume of poems titled, Poems, was printed in 1928 by a school friend. His next volume, also titled, Poems, was published a little over a year later in 1930 by Faber and Faber, (at that time T.S. Eliot was the accepting editor). Auden would return to the Faber and Faber publishing house for all his British published books. For the next five years, Auden worked as a schoolmaster. He spent two years in Helensburgh, Scotland, and another three in Malvern Hills. 

 

In 1932, Auden publish his large work, The Orators, which speaks on hero-worship. He also wrote a number of plays during his time period, some of which included, The Dance of Death, The Dog Beneath, and The Ascent of F6. 

 

After his time working in schools, Auden tried his hand at freelance writing. He worked as a reviewer, lecturer, and essayist. It was also during this time that Auden trailed to Iceland. There he gathered material and experience to further enhance his writing. These travels would come together in a book titled, Letters from Iceland, published in 1937. The same year, Look, Stranger! a collection of Auden’s verse was published.

 

Additionally, he traveled to Spain and served in the Spanish Civil war broadcasting propaganda. These experiences changed his social views and deepened his understanding of the realities of the world. Auden continued to travel and spent time in China where he worked on his book, Journey to a War, published in 1939. 


Writing Career and Relationships

Finally, Auden would immigrate to America. It was during this time that Auden would embark on the most important personal relationship of his life with the poet Chester Kallman whom he would later describe being “married” to. Their intimate relationship did not last, but they remained friends to the duration of Auden’s life. 

 

Auden would experience an intense overhaul of his social and political beliefs. He left behind his youthful days in England and his religious boyhood reasserted itself. He developed an obsession with Christianity and theology; topics that made their way into Auden’s writing. Auden had not lost his skill at incorporating the reality of life into his poetic works. In 1940, he joined the Episcopal Church, furthering his return to his childhood Anglican lifestyle. In 1941, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which he did not use, he decided instead to teach at Swarthmore College. 

 

During the early 1940s, Auden was working on large-scale poems such as, “The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest” and “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue.” 


Later Life and Death

As World War II came to a close, Auden returned to Europe to work with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey to study the effects of Allied bombing on the Germans. In 1946, after returning to the US, he became a citizen. The next years of Auden’s life were filled with summer travels with Chester Kallman to Italy and Austria. From 1956 until 1961, Auden served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University where he gave three-yearly lectures. His lectures were gathered in a prose book, The Dyer’s Hand that was published in 1962. 

 

In 1973, after giving a reading of his poems in Vienna, Austria, Auden died. His final works were, Epistle to a Godson, and the sadly unfinished, Thank You, Fog. 


Influence from other Poets

W.H. Auden was notably influenced by writers such as Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, and William Wordsworth.


Poems by W.H. Auden

Explore poetry by W.H. Auden below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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