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W. H. Auden

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Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, photographed by , 1939
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Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

Wystan Hugh Auden (February 21, 1907September 29, 1973) was an English poet, widely regarded as among the most influential and important writers of the 20th century.

Contents

Life

Auden was born in York and spent his early childhood in Harborne, Birmingham, where his father Dr George Auden was the school medical officer for Birmingham and Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham. From the age of eight Auden was sent away to boarding schools, first in Surrey and later Norfolk, but he returned to Birmingham for the holidays.

He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University, but took only a third-class degree. After Oxford he went to live for a year in Weimar Berlin, in whose tolerant atmosphere his homosexuality could be more openly expressed. On returning to England, he taught at two boys' schools from 1930 to 1935. The most important of these, and where he was happiest, was the Downs School, near Great Malvern. Here he spent three years and wrote some of his finest early love poems: including "This lunar beauty"; "Lay your sleeping head, my love"; "Fish in the unruffled lakes"; and "Out on the lawn I lie in bed".

Auden married Erika Mann, lesbian daughter of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, in 1935, in order to provide her with a British passport to escape the Third Reich. The marriage was never consummated, but they occasionally met on friendly terms in later years, and never bothered to get a divorce.

Auden settled in the United States in 1939 and became a naturalized citizen in 1946. This move away from England, just as the Second World War was starting, was seen by many as a betrayal and his poetic reputation suffered briefly as a result. Having spent many years in the United States, he returned to Europe during the summers starting in 1948, first in Italy then, in Austria; he moved permanently from New York to Oxford in the UK during the last year of his life; he had been Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1956 to 1961, a post which required him to give only three lectures each year, so he spent only a few weeks at Oxford during his professorship. His long-time love and companion was the poet Chester Kallman. He died in Vienna in 1973.

Work

Auden wrote a considerable body of criticism and essays as well as co-authoring some drama with his friend Christopher Isherwood, but he is primarily known as a poet. Auden's work is characterised by exceptional variety, ranging from such rigorous traditional forms as the villanelle to original yet intricate forms, as well as the technical and verbal skills Auden displayed regardless of form. He was also partly responsible for re-introducing Anglo-Saxon accentual meter to English poetry. An area of controversy is the extent to which Auden reworked poems in successive publications, and dropped several of his most well-known poems from "collected" editions because he no longer felt they were honest or accurate. His literary executor, Edward Mendelson, makes the case in his introduction to Auden's Selected Poems that this was in fact an affirmation of Auden's serious belief in the power and importance of poetry. The Selected Poems include some of the verse Auden rejected, and early versions of some which he later revised.

Before he turned to Anglicanism (in a more Protestant variety of Anglicanism than the Anglo-Catholicism of his parents), Auden took an active interest in left-wing political controversies of his day and some of his greatest work reflects these concerns, such as Spain, a poem on the Spanish Civil War and September 1, 1939 on the outbreak of World War II (both were later repudiated by Auden, and excluded from his Collected Poems). Other memorable works include his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, The Unknown Citizen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, and poems on the deaths of William Butler Yeats and Sigmund Freud. Auden's ironic love poem Funeral Blues (originally written to be sung by a soprano friend of his, Hedli Anderson) was movingly read in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Before this, Auden's work was famously used in the GPO Film Unit's documentary film Night Mail," for which he wrote a verse commentary.

Auden was often thought of as part of a group of like-minded writers including Edward Upward, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice (with whom he collaborated on Letters from Iceland in 1936), Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender, although he himself stopped thinking of himself as part of a group after about the age of 24. He also collaborated closely with composers, writing an opera libretto for Benjamin Britten, and, in collaboration with Chester Kallman, a libretto for Igor Stravinsky and two libretti for Hans Werner Henze.

Further reading

External links

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