Biography of W. H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden is considered one of the finest poets of the twentieth century, occupying a position among the likes of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was remarkably prolific and experimental in his poetry; his early stage was characterized by an Eliot-like modernism, his middle stage incorporated Marxist and Freudian themes, and his late stage was more conversational and dealt with Christianity. He experimented with a variety of forms and was virtuosic at all of them: lyric poetry, odes, ballads, meditations, arguments, satires, conversations, and more. He used both formal and free verse.

Auden was born in York, England, in 1907 to an Anglican doctor and a nurse. His childhood was typical, and he proved himself very early on as a bright child. He was educated at Oxford, first studying natural history and then switching to English, and his first volume of poems was printed in 1921. After graduating he lived in Berlin for a while, exploring the cafe lifestyle and embracing his homosexuality. He sent a few poems to Eliot, who was editor at Faber and Faber, and the older poet returned them with favorable comments. A new selection was selected for publication in 1930.

His second volume, The Orators, was published in 1932. It yielded immediate fame. His name was given to a new generation of poets, the "Auden Generation" or the "Auden Group," who were concerned with political and ethical commitment but a commitment that was tinged with ambiguity. They acknowledged modernism's influence but exemplified a desire to escape the poetic conventions of the age.

Auden wrote three plays with Christopher Isherwood in the early 1930s and published a new volume of poetry, On This Island, in 1936. He traveled to Spain and Iceland and published writings on both places. He received the King's Gold Medal for poetry in 1937. In 1935 he married Erika Mann to secure her a British passport.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden immigrated to America and converted to Christianity. This event augured a significant change in his poetry, although sometimes critics overstate this division of an early and late period, also split by his move to America. He began a relationship that would last the rest of his life with Chester Kallmann, an American poet. He lived in New York but traveled to Italy and Venice. He worked in several universities in New York as well as Michigan. He received two Guggenheim awards in 1942 and 1945, the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and the National Book Award. He wrote poetry as well as librettos while in America.

In 1972 Auden returned to England to teach at Oxford. He relished the Northern climate, and he and Kallmann established themselves in Austria. Several poetry collections were published in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Auden died of a heart attack in a hotel in Vienna in 1973. His last collection of poems was published posthumously in 1976 by his literary executor Edward Mendelson.

Auden has been profoundly influential on poets of his own generation and those of subsequent ones. A prominent example of a poet indebted to Auden is John Ashbery. Auden is a mainstay in English courses in high schools and universities throughout the United States and England, and he is a critic's darling.


Study Guides on Works by W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden is considered one of the finest English or American poets and one of the best poets of the 20th century. He is an exemplar of modernism along with T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but his later poetry differs vastly from his earlier work;...