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 is interest in poetry and lost his devotion to religion.
Wyston Hugh Auden
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 included, Stephen Spender Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, the four have been referred to as the “Auden Group.” Auden graduated university in 1928.
Early Works and Travels
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 year 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 an 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.
Mid-Life and America
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 award 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 were 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. Throughout his life Auden 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. His final works were, Epistle to a Godson, and the sadly unfinished, Thank You, Fog.