Armytage Open Lecture


Auden, W. H.
from The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature
Drabble, Margaret, 1939-; Stringer, Jenny; Hahn, Daniel (eds).
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
© Margaret Drabble, Jenny Stringer, and Oxford University Press 1987, 1996, 2003, 2004, 2007

Article Text:

Auden, W. H.

(Wystan Hugh Auden)


educated at Christ Church, Oxford. Among his contemporaries, who were to share some of his left-wing near-Marxist response to the public chaos of the 1930s, were MacNeice, Day-Lewis, and Spender, with whom his name is often linked. (See Pylon school.) In 1929 he became a schoolteacher. He visited Germany regularly, staying with his friend and future collaborator Isherwood. His first volume, Poems (1930; including some previously published in a private edition, 1928), established him as the most talented voice of his generation. The Orators followed in 1932, and Look, Stranger! in 1936. In 1932 he became associated with Rupert Doone's Group Theatre, which produced several of his plays (The Dance of Death, 1933; and, with Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin, 1935; The Ascent of F6, 1936; On the Frontier, 1938); these owe something to the early plays of Brecht. (See also Expressionism.) Working from 1935 with the GPO Film Unit he became friendly with Britten, who set many of his poems to music and later used Auden's text for his opera Paul Bunyan. In 1935 he married Erika Mann to provide her with a British passport to escape from Nazi Germany. A visit to Iceland with MacNeice in 1936 produced their joint Letters from Iceland (1937); Journey to a War (1939, with Isherwood) records a journey to China. Meanwhile in 1937 he had visited Spain for two months, to support the Republicans; this resulted in his poem "Spain" (1937). In January 1939 he and Isherwood left Europe for America (he became a US citizen in 1946) where he met Chester Kallman, who became his lifelong friend and companion. Another Time (1940), containing many of his most famous poems (including "September 1939" and "Lullaby"), was followed by The Double Man (1941, published in London as New Year Letter), a long transitional verse epistle describing the "baffling crime" of "two decades of hypocrisy", and ending with a prayer for refuge and illumination for the "muddled heart". From this time, Auden's poetry became increasingly Christian in tone (to such an extent that he even altered some of his earlier work to bring it in line and disowned some of his political pieces); this was perhaps not unconnected with the death in 1941 of his devout Anglo-Catholic mother, to whom he dedicated For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (1944). This was published with The Sea and the Mirror, a series of dramatic monologues inspired by The Tempest. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1948) is a long dramatic poem, reflecting man's isolation, which opens in a New York bar at night, and ends with dawn on the streets.

In 1956 he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford, and in 1962 he became a Student (i.e. fellow) of Christ Church. His major later collections include Nones (1951, NY; 1952, London), The Shield of Achilles (1955), which includes "Horae Canonicae" and "Bucolics", and Homage to Clio (1960), which includes a high proportion of light verse. Auden had edited The Oxford Book of Light Verse in 1938, and subsequently many other anthologies, collections, etc.; his own prose criticism includes The Enchafed Flood (1950, NY; 1951, London), The Dyer's Hand (1962, NY; 1963, London), and Secondary Worlds (1968, T. S. Eliot Memorial lectures). He also wrote several librettos, notably for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951, with Kallman). About the House (1965, NY; 1966, London), one of his last volumes of verse, contains a tender evocation of his life with Kallman at their summer home in Austria. His Collected Poems were published in 1991, a collection of Juvenilia in 1994.

Auden's influence on a succeeding generation of poets was incalculable. His progress from the engaged, didactic, satiric poems of his youth to the complexity of his later work offered a wide variety of models---the urbane, the pastoral, the lyrical, the erudite, the public, and the introspective mingle with great fluency. He was a master of verse form, and accommodated traditional patterns to a fresh, easy, and contemporary language.





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