Sunday, February 21, 2016

BIRTH: Feb. 21–W. H. Auden (Christ Church)

W. H. Auden 1907-1973
This day in 1907, in York, England was born poet and playwright W[ynstan] H[ugh] Auden, son of a physician and a nurse. As a child, he read voraciously, especially poetry.

He liked the poems of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Gerald Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth and William Blake. He moved with his family to Birmingham during his childhood.

He was awarded a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford to read biology but switched to English literature, where he befriended a group of young poets who became well known. His closest friends were Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood; the group included Cecil Day-Lewis and Louis MacNeice.

After Oxford, he worked as a tutor, a lecturer, a freelance reviewer, and as a schoolmaster for a boys school. He established himself as poet when T.S. Eliot, an editor at Faber and Faber, published Auden's collected Poems in 1930. A different collection with the same name had been privately printed two years earlier. The new book sold well. With Louis MacNeice, he co-wrote a travelogue book, Letters from Iceland (1937).

Auden has been admired for his unsurpassed technical skills as a poet. He has written in almost every form of verse.  He drew from an extraordinary variety of literatures, theories and information. His book The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue was published in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year.

He often mimicked the writing styles of other poets such as Wordsworth, Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Henry James. His travels provided rich material for his journey-oriented verse. He visited Germany, Iceland, and China, served in the Spanish Civil war. After he left Spain, Auden sailed with his lover, writer Christopher Isherwood, for America, where he stayed until 1972. He became a U.S. citizen in May 1946. Isherwood and Auden parted ways when Auden met Chester Kalman.

The arc of his life's interest was from ardent socialism and psychoanalysis in England to a preoccupation with  Protestant theology in the United States.

Often described as the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, his work has had a huge influence on other poets. He served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to  the year of his death. He spent most of the second half of his life in New York City and Austria.

I met him at an event at Quincy House, Harvard College in about 1960.

He and Edna St. Vincent Millay have been identified as the only two English poets in the 20th century to have made a living out of their poetry.

He died in Vienna on September 29, 1973.


After going to Spain to drive an ambulance for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, he was  diverted into radio broadcasting to generate propaganda. Auden decided that writers were not well equipped to fire up the masses:
Writers seldom make good leaders. They're self-employed, for one thing, and they have very little contact with their customers.
He enjoyed the freedoms of American life, especially during the 1960s, when he experimented with drugs. He tried LSD once and said,
Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.
About poetry, he said:
A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
It's a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.
Other Oxford Birthdays.


  1. Oxonian W. H. Auden was born today 109 years ago. He is considered by many to be the greatest English poet of his century. He became an American citizen in 1946 and died in 1973.

  2. Auden and Millay are said to be the only two poets of the 20th century who made a living from their poetry.