Wednesday, May 20, 2015

AMERICAN OXONIAN: May 20–W. H. Auden Naturalized

W.H. Auden, 1907-73
On this day in 1946, W[ystan] H[ugh] Auden became a U.S. citizen. He was born in York, England, on February 21, 1907. Auden began writing poetry in Gresham's School and had his first poem published in a collection called Public School Verse when he was 17.

He went up to Christ Church, Oxford, and made friends with other writers, including Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender and novelist Christopher Isherwood. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, William Blake, Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He also liked Old English verse.

In 1928, the year he graduated from Oxford, his first collection, Poems was printed by his friend Stephen, the last of the Big Spenders. Two years later, another (different) collection called Poems was published, establishing Auden as a voice of England's youngest writers. He was a virtuoso of writing in different poetic styles and often mimicked the writing styles of other poets such as Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Henry James.

Auden spent a year in Berlin, then for five years taught in Scotland and England and worked for a government film bureau. He also visited Iceland and China. In the 1930s, Auden embraced leftist causes and went to Spain intending to drive an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War. However, he was shocked by the destruction of Roman Catholic churches and returned to England.

In 1935, he married Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika to help her escape Nazi Germany. In 1936, he published On This Island. In 1939, he moved to the United States, and his work became less political as he turned to Christianity, reading theologians Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr and in 1940 rejoining the Episcopal Church.

In 1940-41, he shared a house in New York with the writer Carson McCullers and the composer Benjamin Britten, writing Another Time (1940) and The Double Man (1941). He met Chester Kallman, his lover for two years, to whom Auden dedicated two of his poetry collections.

He volunteered to serve in the British Army when war broke out, but was told that 32 made him too old. He taught English at the University of Michigan, was drafted into the U.S. Army but was dismissed on medical grounds. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942-43 but decided not to use it. Instead, he spent the war years 1942-45 teaching at Swarthmore.

He visited Germany after the war to study the effects of the Allied bombing on German morale, came back to New York City and worked as a freelance writer while lecturing at The New School and occasionally at Bennington and Smith.

In 1948, Auden won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Anxiety (1947), a poem about spiritual isolation in contemporary urban settings. He moved in his focus on religion from personal exploration of Protestantism to a study of Roman Catholic ritual, building on the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran minister who explored the ability of religion to provide relief from human suffering.

Auden was a literary virtuoso, accessing current events, vernacular speech, and many kinds of writing and data. His poems are often in the form of a journey for which he makes use of his own travels. Auden was an essayist and playwright as well as being esteemed as the greatest English poet of the twentieth century.

Auden served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to his death. He divided most of the second half of his life between a residence in New York City and a farm in Austria, staying in Oxford in 1956-60 while serving to as a Professor of Poetry.

He died in Vienna on September 29, 1973. This post draws on information in bios of Auden published by the Writers Almanac (Garrison Keillor) and the Academy of American Poets.


In the 1960s, after his stint at Oxford, Auden had some connection with Harvard. I sat opposite him at a formal Harvard College event in my senior year and my recollection of the table conversation was that it had both the fluency and incoherence of a current-news discussion drowned by too many glasses of sherry. (It was often rumored that the endless flow of Amontillado Sherry at Harvard in 1958-1962 was financed by the Ford Foundation; I have never been able either to confirm or disprove this rumor.)

I did not have any sense that Auden was even vaguely interested in unburdening himself of new personal insights. It was a quite different experience from a lunchtime conversation I had near that time with Quincy House Honorary Fellow (or whatever his title was) Robert Lowell, who spoke to me as if he were kneeling in a confessional box and I – an incredulous undergraduate – was a bishop.

Somewhere I read that Auden and Edna St. Vincent Millay are the only two poets in the 20th Century to have made a living from their poetry. However, when I ask Grandma Google to remind me where I read that, she only provides links to my own prior assertions of it. At any rate, Millay's ability to earn a living from her poetry benefited greatly by her having married businessman Eugen Boissevain, who gave up his business to become her agent and "cruise director". Auden said:
It's a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his [or her] art than he [or she] can by practicing it.

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