Auden was born in York, England, to George Augustus Auden, a physician, and Constance Rosalie Auden, née Bicknell, who had trained (but never served) as a missionary nurse. He was the third of three sons; the eldest, George Bernard Auden, became a farmer, while the second, John Bicknell Auden, became a geologist. Auden, whose grandfathers were both Church of England clergymen, grew up in an Anglo-Catholic household that followed a "High" form of Anglicanism with doctrine and ritual resembling those of Roman Catholicism. He traced his love of music and language partly to the church services of his childhood. He believed he was of Icelandic descent, and his lifelong fascination with Icelandic legends and Old Norse sagas is visible throughout his work.
In 1908 his family moved to Homer Road, Solihull, near Birmingham, where his father had been appointed the School Medical Officer and Lecturer (later Professor) of Public Health. Auden's lifelong psychoanalytic interests began in his father's library. From the age of eight he attended boarding schools, returning home for holidays. His visits to the Pennine landscape and its declining lead-mining industry figure in many of his poems; the remote decaying mining village of Rookhope was for him a "sacred landscape", evoked in a late poem, "Amor Loci". Until he was fifteen he expected to become a mining engineer, but his passion for words had already begun. He wrote later: "words so excite me that a pornographic story, for example, excites me sexually more than a living person can do."
Auden's first boarding school was St Edmund's School, Hindhead, Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood, later famous in his own right as a novelist. At thirteen he went to Gresham's School in Norfolk; there, in 1922, when his friend Robert Medley asked him if he wrote poetry, Auden first realised his vocation was to be a poet. Soon after, he "discover(ed) that he (had) lost his faith" (through a gradual realisation that he had lost interest in religion, not through any decisive change of views). In school productions of Shakespeare, he played Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew in 1922, and Caliban in The Tempest in 1925, his last year at Gresham's. His first published poems appeared in the school magazine in 1923. Auden later wrote a chapter on Gresham's for Graham Greene's The Old School: Essays by Divers Hands (1934).
In 1925 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, with a scholarship in biology, but he switched to English by his second year. Friends he met at Oxford included Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender; these four were commonly though misleadingly identified in the 1930s as the "Auden Group" for their shared (but not identical) left-wing views. Auden left Oxford in 1928 with a third-class degree.
He was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood in 1925 by his fellow student A. S. T. Fisher. For the next few years Isherwood was his literary mentor to whom he sent poems for comments and criticism. Auden probably fell in love with Isherwood, and in the 1930s they maintained a sexual friendship in intervals between their relations with others. In 1935–39 they collaborated on three plays and a travel book.
From his Oxford years onward, Auden's friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely. In groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way; in more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome. He was punctual in his habits, and obsessive about meeting deadlines, while choosing to live amidst physical disorder.
Britain and Europe, 1928–38
In the autumn of 1928, Auden left Britain for nine months in Berlin, partly to rebel against English repressiveness. In Berlin, he said, he first experienced the political and economic unrest that became one of his central subjects.
On returning to Britain in 1929, he worked briefly as a tutor. In 1930 his first published book, Poems (1930), was accepted by T. S. Eliot for Faber and Faber; the firm also published all his later books. In 1930 he began five years as a schoolmaster in boys' schools: two years at the Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh, Scotland, then three years at the Downs School in the Malvern Hills, where he was a much-loved teacher. At the Downs, in June 1933, he experienced what he later described as a "Vision of Agape", when, while sitting with three fellow-teachers at the school, he suddenly found that he loved them for themselves, that their existence had infinite value for him; this experience, he said, later influenced his decision to return to the Anglican Church in 1940.
During these years, Auden's erotic interests focused, as he later said, on an idealised "Alter Ego" rather than on individual persons. His relations (and his unsuccessful courtships) tended to be unequal either in age or intelligence; his sexual relations were transient, although some evolved into long friendships. He contrasted these relations with what he later regarded as the "marriage" (his word) of equals that he began with Chester Kallman in 1939 (see below), based on the unique individuality of both partners.
From 1935 until he left Britain early in 1939, Auden worked as freelance reviewer, essayist, and lecturer, first with the G.P.O. Film Unit, a documentary film-making branch of the post office, headed by John Grierson. Through his work for the Film Unit in 1935 he met and collaborated with Benjamin Britten, with whom he also worked on plays, song cycles, and a libretto. Auden's plays in the 1930s were performed by the Group Theatre, in productions that he supervised to varying degrees.
His work now reflected his belief that any good artist must be "more than a bit of a reporting journalist". In 1936, Auden spent three months in Iceland where he gathered material for a travel book Letters from Iceland (1937), written in collaboration with Louis MacNeice. In 1937 he went to Spain intending to drive an ambulance for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, but was put to work broadcasting propaganda, a job he left to visit the front. His seven-week visit to Spain affected him deeply, and his social views grew more complex as he found political realities to be more ambiguous and troubling than he had imagined. Again attempting to combine reportage and art, he and Isherwood spent six months in 1938 visiting China amid the Sino-Japanese War, working on their book Journey to a War (1939). On their way back to England they stayed briefly in New York and decided to move to the United States. Auden spent the autumn of 1938 partly in England, partly in Brussels.
Many of Auden's poems during the 1930s and afterward were inspired by unconsummated love, and in the 1950s he summarised his emotional life in a famous couplet: "If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me" ("The More Loving One"). He had a gift for friendship and, starting in the late 1930s, a strong wish for the stability of marriage; in a letter to his friend James Stern he called marriage "the only subject." Throughout his life, Auden performed charitable acts, sometimes in public (as in his marriage of convenience to Erika Mann in 1935 that gave her a British passport with which to escape the Nazis), but, especially in later years, more often in private, and he was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed, as when his gift to his friend Dorothy Day for the Catholic Worker movement was reported on the front page of The New York Times in 1956.
United States and Europe, 1939–73
Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York City in January 1939, entering on temporary visas. Their departure from Britain was later seen by many there as a betrayal, and Auden's reputation suffered. In April 1939, Isherwood moved to California, and he and Auden saw each other only intermittently in later years. Around this time, Auden met the poet Chester Kallman, who became his lover for the next two years (Auden described their relation as a "marriage" that began with a cross-country "honeymoon" journey). In 1941 Kallman ended their sexual relationship because he could not accept Auden's insistence on a mutual faithful relationship, but he and Auden remained companions for the rest of Auden's life, sharing houses and apartments from 1953 until Auden's death. Auden dedicated both editions of his collected poetry (1945/50 and 1966) to Isherwood and Kallman.
In 1940–41, Auden lived in a house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, which he shared with Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, and others, and which became a famous center of artistic life, nicknamed "February House". In 1940, Auden joined the Episcopal Church, returning to the Anglican Communion he had abandoned at thirteen. His reconversion was influenced partly by what he called the "sainthood" of Charles Williams, whom he had met in 1937, and partly by reading Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr; his existential, this-worldly Christianity became a central element in his life.
After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Auden told the British embassy in Washington that he would return to the UK if needed, but was told that, among those his age (32), only qualified personnel were needed. In 1941–42 he taught English at the University of Michigan. He was called up to be drafted in the United States Army in August 1942, but was rejected on medical grounds. He had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1942–43 but did not use it, choosing instead to teach at Swarthmore College in 1942–45.
In the summer of 1945, after the end of World War II in Europe, he was in Germany with the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey, studying the effects of Allied bombing on German morale, an experience that affected his postwar work as his visit to Spain had affected him earlier. On his return, he settled in Manhattan, working as a freelance writer, a lecturer at The New School for Social Research, and a visiting professor at Bennington, Smith, and other American colleges. In 1946 he became a naturalised citizen of the US.
His theology in his later years evolved from a highly inward and psychologically oriented Protestantism in the early 1940s to a more Roman Catholic-oriented interest in the significance of the body and in collective ritual in the later 1940s and 1950s, and finally to the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which rejected "childish" conceptions of God for an adult religion that focused on the significance of human suffering.
Auden began summering in Europe in 1948, first in Ischia, Italy, where he rented a house, then, starting in 1958, in Kirchstetten, Austria, where he bought a farmhouse, and, he said, shed tears of joy at owning a home for the first time.
In 1951, shortly before the two British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the USSR, Burgess attempted to phone Auden to arrange a vacation visit to Ischia that he had earlier discussed with Auden; Auden never returned the call and had no further contact with either spy, but a media frenzy ensued in which his name was mistakenly associated with their escape. The frenzy was repeated when the MI5 documents on the incident were released in 2007.
In 1956–61, Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University where he was required to give three lectures each year. This fairly light workload allowed him to continue to winter in New York, where he now lived at 77 St. Mark's Place in Manhattan's East Village, and to summer in Europe, spending only three weeks each year lecturing in Oxford. He now earned his income mostly by readings and lecture tours, and by writing for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines.
During his last years, his conversation became repetitive, to the disappointment of friends who had known him earlier as a witty and wide-ranging conversationalist. In 1972, Auden moved his winter home from New York to Oxford, where his old college, Christ Church, offered him a cottage, but he continued to summer in Austria. He died in Vienna in 1973 and was buried in Kirchstetten.