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; critics often speak of early, middle, and late stages in his career. He is renowned for being wildly inventive and diverse in his array of forms and styles. Many of his poems, such as “In Praise of Limestone” and the poems in The Orators, are abstruse and highly intellectual, while others are renowned for their use of accessible language and relatable themes.
At Oxford in the late 1920s, Auden read the work of Eliot and was influenced greatly by the elder poet. His first book of poetry, Poems, was printed privately in 1928 by Stephen Spender, a friend of his in the “Oxford Group,” a coterie of poets. Auden’s earliest verse also was influenced by Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owens. These poems, as the Poetry Foundation explains, are “fragmentary and terse, relying on concrete images and colloquial concerns to convey Auden’s political and psychological concerns.”
In the 1930s his poems reflected his travels as well as his immersion in the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Journey to War, written with Christopher Isherwood, a frequent collaborator, featured short sonnets and a verse commentary. The famous “Spain,” dealing with the Spanish Civil War, is from this period.
Auden’s fame grew for his bold and lyrical treatment of contemporary issues of humanity in the face of totalitarianism. At the end of the decade he moved to the United States. His first book of poems written in America was Another Time (1940). This volume includes some of his best-loved works, such as “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” “September 1st, 1939,” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”
Subsequent volumes, including The Double Man (1941) and The Sea and the Mirror (1945), solidified his sterling reputation. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1948). This volume used Old English alliterative style but dealt with contemporary themes. The next volume, Nones (1951), contained the famous “In Praise of Limestone.” His poems during this time used contemporary-sounding language and slang, while they continued to engage with large themes and ideas. The Shield of Achilles, featuring the fantastic poem of the same name, won the National Book Award in poetry in 1956.
In his later years Auden wrote City Without Walls, and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumous Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). While at the time of their publication they received mixed reviews that averred a lessening of talent in the great poet, these collections have since been perceived in more favorable terms.
Auden won the National Medal for literature in 1967, with the award explaining that 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.” After his death in 1973, Joseph Brodsky wrote that his was “the greatest mind of the twentieth century.”