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W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden) Biography

(1907–73), (Wystan Hugh Auden), Criterion, Poems, The Orators, Look, Stranger!, The Dance of Death

poems poetry verse political

British poet, born in York, educated at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1928 an edition of twenty of his poems was handprinted by Stephen Spender, who, with Louis MacNeice and C. Day Lewis, was among his acquaintances as a student. The great stylistic originality of the collection owed much to his success in assimilating aspects of poetic Modernism while retaining affinities with more traditional modes. He also completed the experimental verse-drama ‘Paid on Both Sides: A Charade’ in 1928; T. S. Eliot accepted it for the Criterion and, as a director of Faber and Faber, undertook publication of Poems (1930, revised edition 1932). The volume included ‘1929’, ‘Consider’, and other poems indicative of the political and psychological radicalism which Auden absorbed while living in Berlin in 1928 and 1929. The Orators (1932) sustained the Modernist experimentation of ‘Paid on Both Sides’; the work's theme of political extremism links it to numerous approximately contemporaneous poems included in Look, Stranger! (1936). The urgency with which he addressed the contemporary sense of imminent cultural crisis rapidly identified him as the leader of a group of poets noted for their work's commitment to socialism and the use of urban and industrial imagery (see Pylon School). His political stance is also apparent from the Brechtian verse-dramas (see Expressionism) he wrote for the Group Theatre: following The Dance of Death (1933), a burlesque phantasmagoria denouncing bourgeois values, The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1938) were written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood. Having worked as a schoolteacher in Helensburgh and Colwall from 1929, in 1935 Auden moved to London and worked briefly with the GPO Film Unit. A trip to Iceland with MacNeice in 1936 produced Letters from Iceland (1937), a miscellany of verse and prose by both authors; while often highly entertaining, the book conveys a profound spiritual disquiet which becomes more distinct in Auden's work over the next two years. He went to Spain in 1937 to broadcast propaganda for the Republican cause; ‘Spain 1937’ was written upon his return. In 1938 he sailed for China with Isherwood to gather materials for a book on the Sino-Japanese war. Journey to a War (1939) resulted, Auden's most significant contribution being the sequence later collected as ‘Sonnets from China’; the twenty-one poems indicate the increasingly philosophical and metaphysical tendency of his thought, which culminated in his return to the Church in 1939. In that year he emigrated to the USA and met Chester Kallman, who became his lover and remained his companion for the rest of his life. The poetry of Another Time (1940) demonstrated the increased imaginative scope to which he gained access in America. He became a US citizen in 1946.

The investigation of the historical and philosophical contexts of the Second World War in The Double Man (1941), published in Britain as New Year Letter (1941), marked the start of a series of long poems forming an ambitious exposition of his ethical, artistic, and religious beliefs. The title poem of For the Time Being (1944) combines a treatment of the Nativity with a stringent critique of modern cultural materialism; the volume also contained ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, his ‘Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest’, which includes some of his most opulently lyrical verse. The Age of Anxiety (1948), the last of the long poems, forms a dramatic summation of the series. Having produced a libretto in 1941 for Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan (1976), in 1947 Auden began the first of numerous collaborations with Kallman when commissioned by Igor Stravinsky to write a libretto for The Rake's Progress (1951); their other operatic works include a translation of The Magic Flute (1956) and the libretto for Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers (1961). Nones (1951) contained ‘In Praise of Limestone’ and other poems drawing local imagery from the Italian island of Ischia, where Auden spent his summers between 1948 and 1957. The volume established the extraordinary technical, tonal, and thematic range of his later poetry. Subsequent volumes include The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), City without Walls (1969), and Epistle to a Godson (1972). Central to much of the work they contain is a concern to define the terms of a just and humane civilization; among the topics recurrently raised are the interrelations of man and nature, modern history, linguistics, religion, and various branches of science. In 1956 Auden became Oxford Professor of Poetry and in the following year bought the house in Kirschstetten, Austria, which is celebrated in About the House of 1965. He continued to spend part of each year in New York until 1972, when a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, Oxford, became his alternative residence. His principal writings as a critic are The Enchafed Flood (1950), essays on the psychology and symbolism of Romantic literature; The Dyer's Hand (1962), a substantial collection of essays stating his conceptions of poetry and art in general; and Secondary Worlds (1968), a consideration of relations between artistic creation and the primary world of common experience. Edward Mendelson is the editor of Collected Poems (1976) and The English Auden (1977), a comprehensive collection of his work up to 1939. Humphrey Carpenter's W. H. Auden appeared in 1981. See also The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden (1993) by Anthony Hecht, and Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings by W. H. Auden, 1939–1973 (1993).

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