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W. H. Auden was a major English poet, one of the most important English-speaking poets born in the twentieth century. His works center on moral issues with strong political, social, and psychological orientations. Noted especially for native lyrical gifts and highly developed technical expertise, he also displayed wide reading and acute intelligence in his poems. His life contains sharp contradictions. His early poems were praised for their political pertinence as well as their aesthetic modernity, and his later poems were condemned for their religious and political orthodoxy. But contradictions notwithstanding, he continues to receive recognition as one of the most important poets ofthe century, and as one of its most representative figures as well.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. His father was the medical officer of the city of Birmingham and a psychologist. His mother was a devout Anglican, and the combination of religious and scientific or analytic themes are implicit throughout Auden’s work. He was educated at St. Edmund’s preparatory school, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who later gained a wide reputation as a novelist. At oxford University, fellow undergraduates were Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, who, with Auden, formed the collective variously labeled the oxford Group or the ”Auden Generation.” At oxford Auden studied Anglo-Saxon English and also became familiar with modernist poetry, particularly that of T. S. Eliot, which was to influence his early writing.
Travels and Collaborations
A small volume of Auden’s poems was privately printed by Stephen Spender in 1928, while Auden was still an undergraduate. Poems was published a year later by Faber and Faber (of which T. S. Eliot was a director). The Orators (1932), a volume consisting of odes, parodies of school speeches and sermons, and the strange, almost surreal ”Journal of an Airman” provided a barrage of satire against England, ”this country of ours where no one is well.” It set the mood for a generation of public school boys who were in revolt against the empire of England and its trappings.
After he completed college, Auden traveled in Weimar Republic, Germany. In 1937 he went with MacNeice to Iceland and in 1938 with Isherwood to China. The literary results of these journeys were collaborations: with MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (1937), and with Isherwood, Journey to a War (1939). Auden did not participate in World War II as a soldier, though he traveled to Germany after the end of the war with the United States Strategic Bombing Survey to witness firsthand the devastating and demoralizing effects of Allied bombing on the mental well-being of German citizens.
To America and Christianity
In 1939 Auden took up residence in the United States, supporting himself by teaching at various universities. His first book as an immigrant, Another Time (1940), contains some of his best-known poems, among them ”September 1, 1939,” ”Musee des Beaux Arts,” and ”Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” a love poem written to Chester Kallman. In 1946, Auden became a U.S. citizen.
A famous line from ”In Memory of W. B. Yeats”— ”Poetry makes nothing happen”—presents Auden’s complete rejection of Romantic tenets. Auden’s increasing focus on ethical concerns in Another Time points to his reconversion to Christianity, which he had abandoned at the age of fifteen. These concerns are central to The Double Man (1941) and For the Time Being (1944). The Double Man contains ”New Year Letter,” a long epistolary poem outlining Auden’s readings of Christian literature, while ”For the Time Being” features two allegorical pieces that present the author’s views on art and life and Christian faith.
In his final years, Auden wrote the volumes City Without Walls, and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). All three works are noted for their range and humanitarian content. Auden’s penchant for altering and discarding poems has prompted publication of several anthologies in the decades since his death, on September 28, 1973 in Vienna, Austria. The multivolume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989.
Works in Literary Context
In the 1930s W. H. Auden became famous when he was described by literary journalists as the leader of the so-called ”Oxford Group,” a circle of young English poets influenced by literary Modernism, in particular by the aesthetic principles espoused by T. S. Eliot. These authors adhered to various communist and antifascist doctrines and expressed in their writings social, political, and economic concerns, all of which are evident in Auden’s work of the 1930s.
Rejecting the traditional poetic forms favored by their Victorian predecessors, the Modernist poets favored concrete imagery and free verse. In his work, Auden applied conceptual and scientific knowledge to traditional verse forms and metrical patterns while assimilating the industrial countryside of his youth.
He disliked the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, whom he referred to as ”Kelly and Sheets.” This break with the English post-Romantic tradition was important for his contemporaries. It is perhaps still more important that Auden was the first poet in English to use the imagery (and sometimes the terminology) of clinical psychoanalysis.
The Symbolic and the Rational
Auden’s early poetry, influenced by his interest in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in psychoanalysis, was sometimes riddle-like, sometimes jargonish and clinical. It also contained private references inaccessible to most readers. At the same time it had a clouded mysteriousness that would disappear in his later poetry. In the 1930s his poetry ceased to be mystifying; still dealing with difficult ideas, however, it could at times remain difficult to penetrate. His underlying preoccupation was a search for interpretive systems of analytic thinking and faith. Clues to the earlier poetry are to be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. In the later poems (after ”New Year Letter,” in which he turns to Christianity), some clues can be traced in the works of Soren Kierkegaard, and in Reinhold Niebuhr and other theologians.
Among Auden’s highly regarded attributes was the ability to think symbolically and rationally at the same time. This allowed intellectual ideas to be transformed into a uniquely personal, idiosyncratic, and often witty image-based idiom. He made ideas concrete through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the austere outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that is interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally.
He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as ”Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” and ”Look, Stranger!”
Often Auden’s poetry may seem a rather marginal criticism of life and society, a poetry written from the sidelines. Yet sometimes it moves to the center of the time in history in which he and his contemporaries lived. In ”The Shield of Achilles” he recreated the anguish of modern totalitarian societies in a poem that holds one particular time in a mirror for all times. His famous poem ”September 1, 1939” offers his own feelings on humanity’s fate while standing at the brink of war; this is summed up in the poem’s most quoted line, ”We must love on another or die.”
Works in Critical Context
Auden’s career has undergone much reevaluation through the years. While some critics contend that he wrote his finest work when his political sentiments were less obscured by religion and philosophy, others defend his later material as the work of a highly original and mature intellect. Many critics echo the assessment of Auden’s career by the National Book Committee, which awarded him the National Medal for Literature in 1967: ”[Auden’s poetry] has illuminated our lives and times with grace, wit and vitality. His work, branded by the moral and ideological fires of our age, breathes with eloquence, perception and intellectual power.”
While most critics view Auden’s poetry from the 1930s and early 1940s as his best, controversy surrounds evaluation of the middle and later periods of his career. ”New Year Letter” continues to receive much critical attention, as does the relevance of Auden’s self-imposed exile in America. Some critics believe that Auden’s poetry lost much of its imaginative power and vitality after his immigration to the United States.
On This Island
When his poetry collection On This Island was published in 1936 (having been published in England under the title Look, Stranger! the previous year), Auden had already made a name for himself as a writer to watch with his collected Poems and The Orators. Edmund Wilson, in a review of On This Island for the New Republic, states of Auden, ”He certainly has more of what it takes to become a first-class poet than anybody else of his generation in England or, so far as I can think, the United States.” However, Wilson also noted that the style and tone of the poems do not always mesh, and that ”the off-rhymes begin to get on one’s nerves.” David Daiches, in a review for Poetry, commented, ”The simple and highly effective strain of description and meditation which runs through these poems, the subtle clarity and plastic handling of language which he displays, seem to indicate that at last he has found a public, that he knows to whom he is speaking.”
- Auden, W. H., Katherine Bucknell, and Nicholas Jenkins, eds. In Solitude, for Company: W. H. Auden After 1940, Unpublished Prose and Recent Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Buell, Frederick. W. H. Auden as a Social Poet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.
- Fuller, J. A Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1970.
- Jacobs, Alan. What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
- Page, Norman. Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
- ”W. H. Auden (1907-1973).” Poetry Criticism, vol. 1. Robyn V. Young, ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
- Green, Timothy. ”The Spirit of Carnival in Auden’s Later Poetry.” The Southern Humanities Review (Fall 1977): vol. 11.4: 372-82.
- Fountain, James Richard Thomas. ”Auden’s Spain.” The Explicator(Spring 2007): vol. 65.3: 171.
- Hamilton, Craig A. ”Mapping the mind and the body on W.H. Auden’s personifications.” Style (Fall 2002): vol. 36.3: 160; 408.
- Hitchens, Christopher. ”Almost Serendipitious.” Poetry (July-August 2007): vol. 190.4: 339.
- Hynes, Samuel. ”The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940.” Sewanee Review (Winter 1982): vol. 90.1: 31-52.
- Jacobs, Alan. ”Shame the Devil.” Books & Culture (Mar. 2002): vol. 8.2: 12.
- The Estate of W. H. Auden. The W. H. Auden Society. Accessed February 23, 2008, from http:// www.audensociety.org/index.html
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