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Auden, Wystan Hughfree

(1907–1973)
  • Edward Mendelson

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973)

by Cecil Beaton, 1953

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Auden, Wystan Hugh (1907–1973), poet and writer, was born at 54 Bootham, York, on 21 February 1907, the youngest of three children (all sons) of George Augustus Auden (1872–1957), general practitioner, and his wife, Constance Rosalie, née Bicknell (1869–1941). His parents were devout high Anglicans, especially his mother, who had trained as a missionary nurse before meeting Auden's father when both were at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Dr Auden, who was gentle and phlegmatic, had read natural sciences (and won a gold medal) at Cambridge, and was widely learned in medicine, psychology, classics, and archaeology and published articles on all these subjects; he read Norse myths and legends to his son, and believed (perhaps mistakenly) he was descended from Icelanders. In 1908 Dr Auden was appointed the first school medical officer of the city of Birmingham (and later became professor of medicine at the university there), and was among the first medical officers in Britain to use psychoanalytic insights and techniques; Auden first read Freud in his father's library. Constance Auden, who was severe and volatile, had taken a degree in French, with a gold medal, from London University; she encouraged her son to share her musical tastes and to learn to play the piano. Wystan's eldest brother, George Bernard Auden (1900–1978), was a farmer with few intellectual interests; Wystan was closer to the second son, John Bicknell Auden (1903–1991), who became a distinguished geologist.

Childhood and education

At Birmingham the family lived in the suburb of Solihull, and became friendly with E. R. Dodds and other teachers at the university. Mrs Auden's bête noire was the modernist bishop of Birmingham, Ernest William Barnes, who had tried to suppress Anglo-Catholic practices in his diocese. Auden's earliest religious memories were of mysterious rites in which he carried the incense-boat.

When the First World War broke out Dr Auden signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps and during the next four years his family saw him only on rare visits home. Wystan and his brother John remained at home with their mother until September 1915 when both brothers were sent to St Edmund's School in Hindhead, Surrey. Until the end of the war Mrs Auden lived in lodgings; during school holidays she and her sons stayed with members of their family or visited rustic places in England and Wales. During these years Wystan Auden fell in love with lead-mining machinery, which he first read about in books and then observed during holiday visits—to the Blue John mine at Castleton, near Sheffield, for example. He hoped to become a mining engineer. At school he was untidy and mildly subversive, athletically unskilled but intellectually distinguished. He amused himself at the piano and by collecting scientific specimens, and he impressed the other boys with sexual information picked up from his father's library. He was elected president of a newly formed literary society at school in 1920, but had no special literary interests.

After Dr Auden returned from the war in 1918 the family moved to a house in Harborne, another Birmingham suburb, and began taking holidays in the Pennine hills, where they stayed in farmhouses in Wescoe and Derwentfolds, near Threlkeld. In 1919 they visited the recently abandoned mines at Rookhope, where the desolate industrial landscape excited a Wordsworthian visionary intensity in the twelve-year-old Wystan Auden. He recalled this experience in poems and essays throughout his life, variously describing it as a vision of Edenic innocence and of his consciousness of a guilty loss of Eden.

Auden's last months at St Edmund's, in 1920, were a 'period of ecclesiastical schwärmerei' (Auden, Forewords and Afterwords, 517) when, as he recalled later, his religious enthusiasm was stimulated by his sexual attraction to the school chaplain, the Revd Geoffrey Newman. (Auden had been aware of his homosexuality since childhood, and it became the source of much friction between himself and his mother.) By the autumn his religious enthusiasm had begun to fade, although he still thought of himself as a believer when he began at Gresham's School, Holt, a self-consciously modern school that emphasized science over the classics. Morality was governed by an ‘honour system’ in which pupils were expected to control their impulses, report their own infractions, and report the infractions of others who failed to do so. Auden later wrote: 'The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a Fascist state' (The Old School, ed. G. Greene, 1934, 17).

Auden's best friend at Gresham's was Robert Medley, later a painter. In March 1922 he and Medley were walking across a salt marsh near the school when Medley made some irreligious remarks and Auden replied with annoyance. In an attempt to change the subject, Medley asked Auden if he wrote poetry. Auden had never done so, but instantly felt that he had a vocation to become a poet; he later said that the experience had the force of a revelation. In the next few months his religious faith dropped away quietly; he only gradually became aware of its loss.

Wordsworth was Auden's first poetic mentor, followed by others whose work he found in the school library, notably Walter de la Mare, W. H. Davies, and George Russell (AE). In 1923 he discovered Hardy and read and imitated almost no one else for a year, after which he discovered Edward Thomas and also began imitating, although to a lesser degree, Emily Dickinson, A. E. Housman, and Robert Frost. In summer 1925, after finishing at Gresham's, he made his first trip abroad, with his father, to the Salzburg Festival, then to Kitzbühel, where they stayed with a family acquaintance, Hedwig Petzold, whose daughter Christa later helped Auden find a house to buy in Austria in 1957.

Auden entered Christ Church, Oxford, in October 1925, with a scholarship in natural science. After a few months he switched to modern Greats (philosophy, politics, and economics), then, at the start of his second year, to English. Because there was no English tutor at Christ Church he was sent for tutorials with the young Nevill Coghill, at Exeter College. A few months earlier Auden had discovered T. S. Eliot's poetry and had almost immediately adopted an exaggeratedly modern and discordant version of Eliot's style in place of the traditional lyric styles of his more youthful verse.

During a visit to London late in 1925 Auden was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood, who became his closest friend and collaborator during the next fourteen years. (They had known each other slightly at St Edmund's, where Isherwood had been two years ahead of Auden.) Auden hero-worshipped Isherwood at this time, sent him his manuscripts, and accepted many of his suggestions for revising them; their friendship was intermittently sexual but they were never in love with each other.

Auden also made close friendships (the most lasting of them with Stephen Spender) and impressed his contemporaries with his total lack of interest in socially prominent students or in political or any other organizations. He kept his door closed against intrusion and worked hard at his poems and less hard at his studies, although his miscellaneous erudition and slightly comic oracular style tended to dazzle his contemporaries. His favourite walk was around the gasworks, and he cultivated an obscurely eccentric manner. He was reputed to keep a starting pistol in his rooms, and was an entertainingly indecorous guest on visits to the families of his friends. The green eyeshade that he sometimes wore in his darkened rooms contributed to his reputation for eccentricity, but he drew the curtains and wore the eyeshade (in later years, dark glasses) because his eyes were acutely sensitive to light. He was tall, gangly, awkward, pale, smooth-faced, unkempt, and without personal dignity; he wrote a few years later, 'My face looks like an egg upon a plate' (W. H. Auden, Letters from Iceland, 1937, 202). His closest friends recognized the shyness and vulnerability hidden beneath a manner that in his early years was sometimes comically extravagant, in later years sometimes comically dictatorial, and although he was impressively resilient as a writer, and let almost no personal crisis distract him from his work, he always remained unassertive and self-deprecating in his intimate relations.

At the end of his first year at Oxford Auden co-edited the 1926 edition of Oxford Poetry with another undergraduate, Charles Plumb, who had been chosen by the publisher, Basil Blackwell, and who invited Auden to collaborate with him; in the following year Blackwell chose Auden to edit the 1927 volume, and Auden chose his friend C. Day-Lewis as co-editor. He also published intermittently in undergraduate magazines, and in June 1927 submitted the manuscript of a book of poems to T. S. Eliot at Faber and Gwyer. Eliot turned it down, but said he would be interested to follow Auden's work. During summer 1927 Auden travelled with his father to Yugoslavia, where he wrote 'The Watershed', the first of his poems that he later wished to preserve. His style now largely freed itself from the influence of Eliot as it had earlier freed itself from Hardy, and he had matured to the point where it was now unmistakably his own. In summer 1928 Spender hand-set about thirty copies of Auden's first book, a small pamphlet entitled Poems; the closing pages were printed by a commercial printing shop when Spender's hand-press broke down.

After leaving Oxford with a third-class degree in 1928 Auden spent three weeks in Spa, Belgium, where he was psychoanalysed by Margaret Marshall, a friend (and later the first wife) of his brother John, who apparently tried to help him shed his homosexuality. Probably as part of the same effort, he soon afterwards became engaged to marry Sheilah Richardson, a young nurse in Birmingham. In the autumn he left for a year in Berlin, paid for by an allowance from his parents. He lived with an upper middle-class family in a Berlin suburb until about Christmas 1928, then moved to a Berlin slum for the next six months of his stay. There he met John Layard, an English anthropologist and disciple of the American psychologist Homer Lane, and absorbed (without entirely taking seriously) Layard's versions of Lane's doctrines about the psychosomatic causes of disease and the need to liberate one's sexual and other impulses. After Auden returned to England in July 1929 he broke off his engagement and resolved to accept his homosexuality.

‘English’ period, 1929–1938

The major work of Auden's year in Berlin was 'Paid on Both Sides: a Charade', a rewritten and expanded version of a dramatic sketch he had written in the summer shortly before leaving England. Eliot accepted this for his magazine The Criterion, and then accepted for Faber and Faber (the later name of Faber and Gwyer) Auden's first regularly published book, entitled Poems like the 1928 pamphlet printed by Spender. The book appeared in 1930 and contained 'Paid on Both Sides' followed by thirty short poems; a revised edition appeared in 1933 with seven of the original poems replaced.

Auden spent much of autumn and winter 1929–30 in London, working intermittently as a tutor. When his allowance ended early in 1930 he took a job as a schoolmaster at Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, a small and undistinguished preparatory school; C. Day-Lewis had held the job there earlier, and apparently suggested that Auden apply for it. Auden found the school dreary and the boys mostly dim, but made close friendships and used fantasy versions of it as the setting for much of his phantasmagoric long poem The Orators (1932). During the summers and at Christmas he visited Isherwood and Spender in Germany.

'Paid on Both Sides' was the first of a series of long, mostly dramatic works that Auden wrote each summer during the next few years. In summer 1929 he and Isherwood collaborated on a long serio-comic play in verse and prose, 'The Enemies of a Bishop', which they left unpublished. In 1930 Auden wrote another play in verse and prose, 'The Fronny' (now lost), based loosely on the travels of Francis Turville-Petre, a dissolute young English anthropologist whom they had met in Berlin. Neither of these plays was written with any prospect of being performed. Then, in 1932, Auden was invited to write for the Group Theatre, an experimental theatre company founded by Auden's schoolfriend Robert Medley and Rupert Doone, a dancer with whom Medley was living. The company was made up of volunteer and amateur actors and had a vague programme of performing new and old plays in a variety of styles that would integrate acting, dancing, singing, and visual effects. Doone invited Auden to write a ballet-drama in which Doone could take the silent role of a dancer. Auden obliged with The Dance of Death, a brief revue in deliberately unpolished verse and prose that was partly a satire on modern fashion and partly a send-up of revolutionary opposition. It was published in 1933 and was performed by the Group Theatre in 1934 and 1935.

Auden had taken no interest in politics at Oxford, but became aware of social unrest in Berlin in 1928–9, and began writing poems that foretold apocalyptic social change. Until 1932 he was more interested in D. H. Lawrence's fantasies about psychological leadership than in any practical politics, and the central theme of The Orators (as he wrote in the foreword of a 1966 reissue) 'seems to be Hero-worship, and we all know what that can lead to politically'. In the latter months of 1932 he began writing about social change in Marxist and visionary terms; he wrote a poem in the voice of a communist organizer, 'Comrades who when the sirens roar' ('Comrades' was revised in 1936 to 'Brothers'); and briefly thought he was in the midst of what he called a conversion to communism. Unlike Spender, Day-Lewis, and Isherwood's novelist friend Edward Upward, however, he was never tempted to join the Communist Party, and told friends that he was a bourgeois, not a revolutionary. For the next few years he publicly adopted socialist political views, while he privately remained intrigued by visionary leadership as exemplified by T. E. Lawrence; this idea he finally renounced (more publicly than he had ever held it) in the figure of the climber who destroys himself and his followers in The Ascent of F6 (1936).

Auden moved in autumn 1932 from Larchfield to the Downs School, Colwall, Herefordshire, a modern preparatory school where pupils and teachers liked his unconventional and comic classroom techniques and he enjoyed his classes and his friendships. In June 1933, sitting on the school lawn with three other teachers, he experienced what he later called a 'vision of Agape' in which:

I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one's neighbour as oneself.

Auden, Forewords and Afterwords, 69

Most of his verse until this time was reticent and mysterious in manner, although he had also begun writing some vigorous satiric verse in the style of Burns; after this experience he increasingly wrote in accessible, lyric styles that drew easily on ballad and sonnet traditions. His characteristic clipped, foreboding style was already so well known that the young Gavin Ewart could expect readers to understand the point of the title of his respectful parody of Auden's manner, the poem 'Audenesque for an Initiation' (New Verse, December 1933).

Auden's theatrical interests flowered at the Downs, where he produced Jean Cocteau's Orphée and an adaptation of The Deluge from the Chester mystery plays, and wrote, composed, and produced a musical revue with a cast made up of the entire school and staff. He also continued his work for the Group Theatre. In 1934 he rewrote 'The Fronny' as 'The Chase'; Isherwood suggested so many changes that the two rewrote the play as The Dog Beneath the Skin, published in 1935 and performed by the Group in 1936.

From about 1933 until 1937 Auden was in love, at first distantly, later intimately, with Michael Yates (1919–2001), a former Downs pupil who was now at Bryanston School; he remained a close friend of Yates (who became head of design for the independent television companies Associated Rediffusion and London Weekend Television) and his wife, Margaret (Marny), for the rest of his life. In later poems such as 'The Cave of Nakedness' he alluded to Yates as a remembered 'sacred image' (there are similar allusions in 'First Things First' and 'Since'). In 1935 Auden married Erika Julia Hedwig Gründgens (1905–1969), daughter of Thomas Mann, in order to provide her with a British passport, as her German citizenship was about to be revoked by the Nazis. (She had asked Isherwood to marry her for this purpose, but he was reluctant, and passed the role on to Auden.) Auden translated some lyrics for Erika Mann's cabaret Die Pfeffermühle in 1936, and remained in cordial contact with her for some years; they never divorced and she left him a small legacy when she died in 1969.

In autumn 1935 Auden left the Downs School to work in London for the General Post Office film unit, a group of artists, writers, and musicians organized by John Grierson to make documentary films on social themes. Among the unit's films for which Auden wrote verse commentaries were Coal Face and Night Mail. Other members of the unit who became Auden's close friends were the composer Benjamin Britten and the painter William Coldstream; Auden and Coldstream, partly in reaction to the earnest socialist propagandizing of the unit's films, devised an aesthetic for themselves in which the artist should be a reporting journalist concerned with the unique particularity of his subjects, rather than a seeker after symbols, myths, movements, and generalities.

After five months with the unit Auden resigned to work as a freelance writer. In spring 1936 he spent a month collaborating with Isherwood in Portugal on their play The Ascent of F6, published and performed the same year with music by Britten. He heard from Michael Yates that Yates, with three other Bryanston pupils and a schoolmaster, planned to spend a week in Iceland in August. Auden had been passionately interested in the Icelandic sagas since childhood (echoes of the sagas occur in 'Paid on Both Sides' and his other early works), and he now arranged for Faber and Faber to commission him to write a travel book about Iceland. He invited Louis MacNeice to collaborate; at Oxford MacNeice had been a distant acquaintance, but he and Auden became close friends when MacNeice was teaching at Birmingham (where Auden lived with his parents when he was not teaching or travelling). Auden sailed to Iceland in June and stayed for three months; MacNeice and the party from Bryanston joined him in August; after the rest of the Bryanston group returned to England, Yates, MacNeice, and Auden stayed on for two more weeks. During the trip Auden and MacNeice began work on the prose and verse of Letters from Iceland (1937), and finished the book in London at the end of the year. While Auden was away Look, Stranger!, his second published collection of short poems, appeared; its title was chosen by his publishers when Auden's postcard suggesting the title The Island failed to reach London in time. He hated the published title and had it changed to On this Island for the American edition.

While in Iceland Auden heard that civil war had broken out in Spain, and late in 1936 he decided to volunteer as a soldier for the Spanish republic, then realized that he did not wish to kill, and resolved to volunteer instead as a medical worker. He left for Spain in January 1937, hoping to drive an ambulance, but on his arrival in Valencia the republican authorities put him to work in the censor's office, where he wrote (and perhaps broadcast) propaganda. After at most four weeks in Valencia he travelled north to the front, then returned to England less than two months after departing; he had originally planned to spend at least four months in Spain.

Auden was deeply unsettled by his experiences in Spain. He said almost nothing about it at the time, other than a remark to Spender to the effect that political expediency was no justification for lies, but he was dismayed to discover how far Stalin's agents were directing the policies of the republic, and was troubled to find the churches closed by the government. He did not think of himself as a Christian, but he began to realize that churches, and what happened inside them, mattered greatly to him, and an explicitly religious note began to enter his poems and prose. Immediately after his return to England, however, he felt morally obliged to defend the republic against its Nazi and fascist enemies; he added a few lines of political uplift to the ending of The Ascent of F6 and arranged to publish his propagandistic poem Spain as a sixpenny pamphlet, giving the royalties to an organization providing medical aid for the Spanish republic. About the same time his lyric poems developed a new emotional intensity and verbal simplicity, both in the love poems he wrote to Michael Yates (including 'The Dream' and 'Lay your sleeping head, my love') and in the serio-comic songs he wrote to be set by Benjamin Britten (including 'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone' and 'O tell me the truth about love').

Auden taught at the Downs School for one more term in spring 1937. While in Dover in August he and Isherwood wrote the first version of another play, On the Frontier, a melodrama about two European nations at war. He spent much of the autumn in Harborne compiling The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938), but made frequent visits to London for broadcasts and readings. In November he was awarded the king's gold medal for poetry, as the result of a recommendation by John Masefield, at this time poet laureate.

Commissioned by his American publisher, Random House, and by Faber and Faber to write a travel book on the Sino-Japanese War, Auden and Isherwood left for China in January 1938, and spent about four months in Hankow (Hankou) and travelling near the war zones. They briefly visited Japan, crossed the Pacific (and rewrote On the Frontier, performed later that year with music by Britten), and spent two weeks in New York in July before returning to England. They found New York exhilarating and made plans to return later for an indefinite stay.

During autumn 1938 Auden spent much of his time in Brussels, sometimes with Isherwood, where they worked on their book about China, Journey to a War (1939). Auden wrote an imposing sequence, 'In Time of War', in which vast historical changes were compressed into the scale of sonnets. In January 1939 he and Isherwood sailed for New York. On their journey they told each other that they had lost interest in writing propaganda, no matter how worthy the cause, and although Auden worked actively during the next few years for refugee and other relief causes, he never again wrote the explicitly political poems that had helped establish his reputation.

First years in America, 1939–1947

Auden told his brother John that he had fallen into despair in the months before he arrived in New York: he was convinced that he could never be loved. In New York Auden found a new commitment to his art—expressed most strikingly in the first poem he wrote after his arrival, 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats'—and new happiness and energy. In April 1939, after a public reading, he met and fell in love with Chester Simon Kallman (1921–1975), a Brooklyn College student who was the second son of a Jewish dentist whose parents had emigrated from Latvia. Auden wrote a group of visionary poems about this experience, among them 'The Prophets' and 'Like a Vocation', and regarded the relationship between Kallman and himself as a marriage. Kallman was literate, musical, and extravagantly witty as a mimic and gossip; Auden learned to love opera through Kallman's example. Later in 1939 he wrote his first libretto, Paul Bunyan (performed with music by Britten, 1941), adapting the legends of an American lumberjack hero. Within a few weeks after Auden and Kallman met, Auden decided to remain in the United States and become an American citizen. New York, he said, gave him the isolation he needed to write, and much of his work at this time had a dry, spare tone and expressed the voluntarily lonely outlook of existentialist thought.

After Auden had taught for a month at St Mark's School, Southboro, Massachusetts, he and Kallman spent summer 1939 travelling through the American south and west. During a month in Taos, New Mexico, Auden wrote 'The Prolific and the Devourer', a collection of prose aphorisms on literature and politics that he left unfinished, perhaps because he soon rejected the pacifism he had expressed in the manuscript. After a visit to Isherwood, who had moved to California after a few months in New York, Auden and Kallman returned to New York at the end of August. A day or two after the start of the Second World War Auden wrote 'September 1, 1939', a poem he later rejected because he found its inflated rhetoric more suitable to the poetry of Yeats than to his own.

In autumn 1939 Auden settled into his new life in America. He compiled a selection of his lyric poems from the past few years and gave the book a title, Another Time (1940), implying that the poems were from a period of his life that had now ended. In October he moved to a flat in Brooklyn Heights and began teaching a course in poetry for the League of American Writers, a left-wing group that he joined but later left in disgust over its support of the HitlerStalin pact. Despite the outbreak of war, he told friends (and suggested in print) that he believed that humanity was inherently good and that a just society was inevitable. Then in November he went to a German-language cinema in Manhattan and was profoundly disturbed by the murderous shouts of the audience in support of a Nazi newsreel about the conquest of Poland. During the next few months he began thinking seriously about the Christianity he had discarded in adolescence, and explored his changing beliefs in a long poem in rhymed octosyllabic couplets, 'New Year Letter', and a sonnet sequence, 'The Quest', both published in The Double Man (1941; published in Britain as New Year Letter). During this period he and Isherwood were attacked in parliament for staying in America during the war; Auden had informed the British embassy in Washington that he was ready to go back but was told that only technically qualified personnel were needed. In October 1940, at about the time he finished The Double Man, he returned to the Anglican fold through the protestant Episcopal church of the USA. His Christianity was at first deeply influenced by Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other representatives of a Lutheran tradition that emphasized matters of social justice and private conscience.

Also in October 1940 Auden moved a few streets away in Brooklyn Heights to a house that he shared at first with Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and the American writer George Davis, later with other writers including Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, Golo Mann, and Richard Wright. Although the rooms in which Auden lived were notoriously chaotic throughout his adult life, he was strictly punctual in his habits and reliable in financial matters. He kept the accounts for the house in Brooklyn Heights, collected rents and paid bills, and enforced a code of manners that forbade political discussion at the dinner table. He began teaching courses for adults at the New School for Social Research in New York and made his living from extensive freelance reviewing.

In July 1941 Auden suffered a severe emotional crisis when Kallman withdrew from their sexual relationship, saying that he could no longer endure Auden's demand for faithfulness, and adding that he had already been unfaithful. A month later Auden's mother died, and the two losses were closely linked in his mind. Although he had returned to the Anglican communion almost a year earlier, Auden dated the start of his serious religious belief to the period after Kallman's defection. Before this time, as he implied in a review of the American poet Louise Bogan (Partisan Review, July–August 1942, 339), he had based his religion on moments of visionary intensity and on his theological reading; now it was based on his understanding of his own inner furies. He recalled in an essay on his return to the church that he had been 'forced to know in person what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers, in both the Greek and Christian sense' (Modern Canterbury Pilgrims, ed. James A. Pike, 1956, 41).

Auden maintained his protective relation to Kallman for the rest of his life, and continued to pay most of Kallman's expenses. Aside from his relation to Kallman, his emotional life was focused on a series of affairs that lasted at most a year or two. One of these affairs, in 1946–7, was with a young woman, Rhoda Jaffe, whom he portrayed as Rosetta in The Age of Anxiety (1947).

In the academic year 1941–2 Auden taught in the English department at the University of Michigan; in the spring semester he was joined by Kallman, who began working towards an MA degree there. After many delays Auden was called up for conscription into the American army in September 1942, but was rejected on what were called medical grounds, because of his homosexuality. He expected to spend the next year working on his Christmas oratorio, 'For the Time Being' (which Britten was to set, but eventually did not), but was offered a lectureship at Swarthmore, a Quaker college in Pennsylvania. He taught there (and intermittently at the nearby Bryn Mawr College) for the next three years, and after finishing 'For the Time Being' wrote a verse commentary on The Tempest, 'The Sea and the Mirror' (both poems published in For the Time Being, 1944; UK, 1945). He also compiled a retrospective collection of his work that was published in the United States as The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945) and in Britain, with longer works omitted, as Collected Shorter Poems, 1930–1944 (1950). 'The Sea and the Mirror' was in part a meditation on romantic and Christian ideas of poetry, and much of the thought that went into the poem was later systematized in his first book of critical prose, The Enchafèd Flood: the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (1950; UK, 1951).

Auden was recruited in spring 1945 to work as a civilian research chief in the United States strategic bombing survey, which studied the effects of allied air bombing on Germany and Japan. He and his friend the novelist James Stern spent the summer in southern Germany conducting interviews and writing reports; he visited England at the start and end of his trip. Settling in New York in the autumn, he resumed his freelance life, and he supplemented his income by teaching a semester at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1946; at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, in 1950; at Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1953; and by delivering lecture courses in New York, including a year-long series of lectures on Shakespeare at the New School in 1946–7. His home in New York, until 1951, was a small apartment in Greenwich Village where he lived alone.

In 1944 Auden had begun The Age of Anxiety: a Baroque Eclogue (1947; UK, 1948), a verse dialogue among three men and women set mostly in a New York bar, and did not finish it until early 1947. Later in 1947 Igor Stravinsky invited him to write the libretto for The Rake's Progress, an opera based on Hogarth's engravings. Auden and Kallman wrote an elegant libretto in neo-classical style. The opera was performed in Venice in 1951, with the chorus coached in English pronunciation by the librettists.

‘Italian’ period, 1948–1957

Auden and Kallman visited Europe together in spring and summer 1948, and spent about six weeks on Ischia. The Italian landscape impressed Auden as being remarkably like the Pennine landscape that he had loved as a child, and he combined them into the setting of the first poem he wrote in Italy, 'In Praise of Limestone'. This, like much of Auden's work in the next few years, was a poem in conversational style that celebrated the ordinary human scale and the ordinary human body; Auden was finding a subject matter as different as possible from that of his modernist predecessors, Yeats and Eliot. His religious beliefs became less influenced by radical protestantism, and more by Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theology that focused on the body, on ritual acts, and on the collective act of worship in the eucharist. He began planning 'Horae canonicae', an ambitious, encyclopaedic sequence of seven poems on the canonical hours that he wrote between 1949 and 1954. Before the sequence was complete, one of its poems became the title-poem of his collection of lyrics Nones (1951; UK, 1952). The full series, together with a serio-comic sequence of seven poems about the natural world, 'Bucolics', appeared in his next collection, The Shield of Achilles (1955).

Every summer from 1948 to 1957 Auden and Kallman rented a house together on Ischia, joining other artists (among them Sir William Walton) who lived on the island for all or part of the year. Also among them was the young German composer Hans Werner Henze, for whom Auden and Kallman wrote two librettos, Elegy for Young Lovers (1959) and The Bassarids (1966). Auden fell into the habit of writing his poems during the summers in Europe and his prose during the winters in New York. In 1951 Auden and Kallman began living together in a loft in lower Manhattan; in 1953 they moved to an apartment on St Marks Place where Auden lived each winter until 1972. As his reputation continued to grow in America, Auden increasingly took on a public role in the literary world: he was editor of the Yale series of Younger Poets from 1947 to 1959; served as a judge for many literary prizes; edited an anthology, The Faber Book of Modern American Verse (1956); and became a mentor to younger writers. He worked closely with an early-music group, the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, and occasionally read verse at their performances in New York and Oxford.

In 1955 Auden was nominated as professor of poetry at Oxford, the only teaching post in the university appointed by an election in which all MAs are eligible to vote. The election campaign (conducted by the candidates' supporters) became a symbolic struggle between modern and traditional approaches to literature (the latter represented by Auden's opponents, Harold Nicolson and the Shakespearian scholar G. Wilson Knight). Auden was generally supported by the undergraduates, who had no vote, but he was attacked by older dons and some journalists who had never forgiven him for leaving Britain in 1939. He won the election, but suffered a few weeks of panic at the prospect of delivering his inaugural lecture. In the event, the lecture, published as Making, Knowing and Judging (1956), was a great success, and Auden's three annual lectures for the rest of his five-year term were highly popular and he was valued by dons and students for his freely given friendship and advice. He collected his Oxford lectures and other essays, reviews, and aphorisms in a long book of prose, The Dyer's Hand (1962; UK, 1963).

‘Austrian’ period, 1958–1973

Auden's summers in Ischia were an arcadian interlude that he knew must inevitably end. He spent winter 1956–7 in Ischia instead of New York because he had sublet his New York home in the mistaken belief that he would be obliged to stay in Europe to give his Oxford lectures. In June 1957 he won an Italian literary prize worth 20 million lire (about £12,000 or $33,000) and four months later used the money to buy a small farmhouse in Kirchstetten, in lower Austria. Ever since his year in Berlin in 1928–9 he had been interested in German literature and thought, and now wanted to spend his summers in a German-speaking country with an opera house nearby; Kirchstetten was an hour by train from Vienna. After spending part of summer 1958 in Ischia, Auden moved into the house in autumn 1958. This was the first house Auden had ever owned, and he told friends that he wept with joy when he stood in the garden.

A new collection of his verse, Homage to Clio (1960), was marked by the mild, sometimes monochromatic manner in which Auden now wrote about the same dark themes of public and private violence that had been present in his earlier work. His theology was again influenced by the German protestant tradition, especially in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had been killed by the Nazis in 1945 and who had proposed a 'religionless Christianity' that focused on human suffering rather than on miracles and myths. The depths of Auden's poems at this time and later were not widely recognized until many years after his death, but his next collection, About the House (1965; UK, 1966), had a more exuberant tone, especially in its opening sequence of fifteen poems about his Austrian house, 'Thanksgiving for a Habitat'. This was the first of his books containing sequences of seventeen-syllable haiku poems, a form he used intermittently for the rest of his life and had learned while translating Dag Hammarskjöld's posthumously published Markings (1963). (Hammarskjöld had been friendly with Auden and was known to have favoured him for the Nobel prize, which Auden was expected to receive in 1964, but apparently lost when he refused to rewrite the passages in his introduction to Markings hinting at Hammarskjöld's megalomaniacal tendencies.)

Auden spent winter 1964–5 in West Berlin as part of an artists-in-residence programme funded by the Ford Foundation. At the invitation of his British publisher he compiled a retrospective volume of his work, Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957 (1966), with many of his best-known poems omitted or heavily revised; the changes prompted complaints by critics who believed that he had altered his work because he no longer held his earlier left-wing positions. However, in the preface to the book he argued (apparently truthfully) that he had dropped poems he regarded as 'dishonest': he had never believed the positions they expressed, but had adopted them because they had seemed rhetorically effective. A Collected Longer Poems (1968) followed, with only minor revisions to earlier texts. A brief prose book, Secondary Worlds (1968), was based on a lecture series. A Certain World: a Commonplace Book (1970) was a collection of quotations and commentary that he described as a kind of autobiography.

In 1963 Kallman had decided to remain in Europe during the winters instead of returning with Auden to New York. The two continued to summer together in Austria, but Kallman now wintered in Athens. Auden's life in New York became increasingly lonely, and his public manner became progressively more crotchety and eccentric. At the same time his deeply and intricately lined face (apparently the combined effect of smoking and a genetic predisposition to wrinkling) became widely familiar to television viewers and readers of news magazines.

The verse in Auden's collection City without Walls (1969) was among his most vivid and energetic, but the verse in Epistle to a Godson (1971) was slighter and less memorable. About 1969 Auden began to tell English friends that he wanted to live in a community, and hinted that he hoped he might return to his Oxford college, Christ Church, in the same way that E. M. Forster had returned to live at King's College, Cambridge. Early in 1972 he was offered an honorary studentship at Christ Church, with a cottage in the college grounds in which to live. He arrived at Oxford in the autumn, but it proved noisier and more crowded than during his professorship; the dons who welcomed him found that he was no longer the brilliant conversationalist they remembered. Auden was now ill and unhappy, and began writing about his readiness to die. On his way back to Oxford after a summer at Kirchstetten, Auden died of heart failure at the Altenburgerhof Hotel in Vienna during the night of 28–29 September 1973. He was buried on 4 October in Kirchstetten, and in London a memorial stone was placed in Westminster Abbey a year later. His last poems were published posthumously under the title that he had chosen for his next collection, Thank you, Fog (1974); he had already typed a page that dedicated the book to Michael and Marny Yates. The most important deposits of Auden's papers are in the Berg collection of the New York Public Library and in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Posthumous reputation

Auden's massive output was written with unmatched virtuosity in a vast range of verse forms, and covered an encyclopaedic range of experience and emotion. During his lifetime he was generally regarded as a major poet, but the emotional directness and accessibility of much of his work seemed slightly suspect to modernist critics who valued difficulty and obscurity in the arts, and he was thought to be of lesser stature than Yeats or Eliot. His work was uneven, marked by frequent shifts in form and style, and by intermittent false starts and near-failures; but, as he argued in lectures and essays about other writers, consistency is a quality of minor writers, not major ones, and many of his finest poems were written to correct or refute poems he had written earlier.

After Auden's death his reputation increased as modernist theories of art lost some of their force. Some literary historians described him as the first writer of the postmodern period. In 1994 Auden's work gained sudden popularity when the film Four Weddings and a Funeral included a reading of his poem 'Funeral Blues'. (It was written in 1936 as an ironic lament for a politician in The Ascent of F6, and rewritten in 1937, retaining only the first eight lines, to mourn the end of a love affair with either Michael Yates or another former pupil, David Impey.) A pamphlet of ten of Auden's love poems, published a few months after the film was released, sold almost 300,000 copies in the English-speaking world and was translated into a half-dozen other languages. After the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 'September 1, 1939' was widely circulated across the internet and reprinted in newspapers and magazines. At the start of the twenty-first century Auden's stature had reached the point where many readers thought it not implausible to judge his work the greatest body of poetry in English of the previous hundred years or more.

Sources

Archives

  • American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York, corresp. and literary MSS
  • BL, notebook, Add. MS 52430
  • BL, notebook, Add. MS 53772
  • Bodl. Oxf., notebook, MS Don d204
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MSS and proofs of Collected shorter poems, 1927–1959
  • NYPL, corresp. and literary papers
  • Ransom HRC, papers
  • BL, letter to J. W. Layard, Add. MS 62114
  • BL, letters to W. L. McElwee, Add. MS 59618
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to E. R. Dodds with poems, MS Eng. lett. c. 464
  • Hunt. L., corresp. with Christopher Isherwood
  • U. Reading L., letters to George Bell & Sons, MS 1640

Film

  • BFINA

Sound

  • BL NSA
  • Yale U., Sterling Memorial Library, Historical Sound Recordings Collection

Likenesses

  • M. Feild, sketches, 1932–5, priv. coll.
  • W. Coldstream, portrait, 1937, Ransom HRC
  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1953, NPG [see illus.]
  • D. Bachardy, drawing, 1957, NPG
  • R. Avedon, photograph, 1960, NPG
  • D. Hockney, drawings, 1968, priv. coll.
  • A. Schumich, drawing, 1973, priv. coll.
  • photographs, NYPL, Berg collection