Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Swarthmore, Delaware County
Acclaimed Modernist poet W. H. Auden taught for a few years at Swarthmore College.
W. H. Auden was born in York, England, in 1907. Early influences that would enter his poetry included his Anglo-Catholic household, his father’s medical library, and his Icelandic background. After attending the University of Oxford he traveled around Europe writing poetry, plays, travel books, and libretti, and serving as tutor and schoolmaster at various small schools. He moved to the United States in 1939 and taught at the University of Michigan (and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship) and Swarthmore College. Later in life, Auden gave lecture tours and readings as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, while continuing to write poetry until his death in 1973 in Austria.
Wystan Hugh (W. H.) Auden was born February 21, 1907, in York, England. He grew up in Birmingham, where his father, George Augustus Auden, was appointed School Medical Officer of Public Health. Wystan first became acquainted with psychoanalytic theory in his father’s library. These concepts would show up later in his writings, and in 1940 he would write a poem entitled “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” The family’s Icelandic ancestry introduced the young Auden to the legends of Iceland and Old Norse sagas. These would both influence his later work.
Auden was brought up in an Anglo-Catholic household, but his religious faith began to fade in his teenage years when he was enrolled in a succession of boarding schools. He became aware of his homosexuality at a young age and felt guilty about it, perhaps due to his mother’s disapproval. At St. Edmund’s School in Surrey, he first met future novelist Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood would become Auden’s close friend and literary companion later in life.
It was at his next school that a friend asked Auden why he had never written poetry. Auden had no good answer, so he began to try his hand at emulating the poetry of William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy.
In 1925, Auden attended Christ Church College at the University of Oxford, originally planning to study natural science but switching in his second year to English. Christopher Isherwood would later write of Auden’s interest in science: “Auden is essentially a scientist… He has acquired the scientific outlook and technique of approach; and this is really all he needs for his writing.”
At Oxford, Auden became part of a group of left-wing poets that included Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. This group would later be referred to as the “Thirties Poets” or the “Auden group.” It was also at Oxford that Auden discovered an affinity for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and immediately tried to replicate him. Isherwood wrote that Auden initially took Eliot’s modernist allusions and discordant jargon too far, to the point where he sounded like “a patient who has received an over-powerful inoculation.” Though it took a few years, Auden eventually found his own—yet still distinctly modernist—style. In 1928, Stephen Spender hand-printed Auden’s first collection, simply titled Poems.
After graduation in 1928, Auden left for nine months with Isherwood in Berlin. This trip was later cited by Auden as the beginning of a concern for political and economic discord—a concern that would pervade his poetry. In Berlin, Auden began to write in German, maintaining his idiosyncratic style despite not knowing the finer points of German grammar. Isherwood would later receive critical acclaim for his novel The Berlin Stories, which was included on TIME magazine’s list of 100 best American novels since 1923 and formed the basis for the musical Cabaret.
In 1930, T.S. Eliot accepted Auden’s manuscript for the publisher Faber and Faber. This became Auden’s first published work, again simply called Poems. It included his first play, Paid on Both Sides, a comedic drama that referenced the Icelandic sagas as well as Auden’s experiences at boarding school.
From 1930 to 1935, Auden worked temporary positions at several boys’ schools in England, and wrote regularly. Much of his work at this time combined writing media, such as the mixed prose and poetry of The Orators, or the drama and poetry of The Ascent of F6 and The Dog Beneath the Skin, both plays co-written with Christopher Isherwood. The Ascent of F6 contained the first appearance of the poem “Funeral Blues” (also known as “Stop all the clocks” for its first line), one of Auden’s best-known works. This poem was rewritten by Auden into the form of a cabaret song, and this version became widely known in contemporary pop culture when it was recited in its entirety in the 1994 British film Four Weddings and a Funeral.
In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann, daughter of German novelist Thomas Mann. Erika Mann was an openly anti-Fascist German who feared arrest from the Third Reich and was looking for British citizenship. She had first asked Isherwood for help, and he had suggested she ask Auden. Auden replied to her proposal with a one-word telegram: “Delighted.” Mann and Auden, both queer, remained technically married until Mann’s death in 1969, but the two never actually lived together. Auden dedicated his 1937 collection, On This Island (known as Look, Stranger! in the U.S.) to Mann. His dedication included the lines “What can truth treasure, or heart bless,/ But a narrow strictness?” Peter Edgerly Firchow suggested in his book “W.H. Auden: Contexts for Poetry” that these lines pointed to a new “preference for truth over art” in Auden’s poetry in the late thirties.
For the next five years Auden worked variably as a freelance reviewer, lecturer, and documentary filmmaker, and wrote plays, songs, and libretti. Resolving to combine journalistic reporting and art, Auden traveled to Iceland to write a travel book Letters from Iceland, and then to the fronts of the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War. Auden and Isherwood’s joint work of prose, verse, and photographs, called Journey to a War, was published in 1939.
Upon return, Auden left Britain for New York, accompanied by Isherwood. This move was largely seen as a betrayal of England by one of the best-respected literary figures of the nation. But being queer and famous in England was risky, and Auden had long planned to permanently move to America. This was not, as some have speculated, a move to escape World War II. In fact, he wrote to an English friend that visiting the war was a reason to consider returning to England. In an essay titled “W.H. Auden as a Social Poet,” Frederick Buell speculated that Auden, by taking himself out of the spotlight and into the anonymity of New York, was “doing what was necessary for his poetic growth, not only in disassociating himself from the moribund movement of the thirties in England, but also in schooling himself in a new privacy from which he could reevaluate both man’s relation to society and man’s relation to God.”
Another major reason that Auden chose to remain in America during the war was his relationship with the poet Chester Kallman. Auden had fallen in love with Kallman and saw their relationship as an unofficial “marriage.” Though Kallman ended their sexual relations in 1941, the two would remain close friends and housemates for the rest of Auden’s life.
Auden rejoined the Anglican Church in 1940. Influenced by the writings of poet Charles Williams, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Auden began to practice a worldly type of Christianity that focused on the body and suffering. Though many of his older poems contained recurring themes of the separation between humanity and nature, he started to emphasize a smooth continuity from humanity to nature through the body. Many of his poems now were long works, such as “New Year Letter,” a philosophical poem that makes up most of his 1941 collection The Double Man.
Auden taught English at the University of Michigan from 1941 until 1942, when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which would provide him grant money to spend freely on creative pursuits. He chose not to use this money and instead moved to Swarthmore College to teach until 1945. Monroe K. Spears, a visiting professor of English to Swarthmore, detailed Auden’s period at the college in a Swarthmore newsletter: “He wrote frequently for the Phoenix [the school newspaper], lectured at various functions, reviewed the College plays, spoke at Collection, served on committees for the judgment of student poetry, and so on. “ He rarely spoke about his own poetry or gave readings, as he was only a lecturer in English, not a creative writing instructor or poet-in-residence. Spears also cites students reports on Auden’s individualistic appearance: “He is reported to have worn no socks, except occasionally on his head in bad weather, and no underwear; to have used a rope for a belt, worn bedroom slippers on the street, and often entertained in bathrobe and slippers.” Auden was also noted for bringing suitcases full of private stores of alcohol to the dry campus.
After World War II ended, Auden traveled once again to Germany, this time to study the psychological effects of Allied bombs on German troops. In 1946, he returned to America and finally became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He began to spend his summers in Ischia, Italy, which created the setting for many of his poems in his next collection, Nones. He summered there until he bought his first house, at the age of 51, in Kirchstetten, Austria.
Beginning in 1949, he and Chester Kallman collaborated on several libretti, including that of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, and two for Hans Werner Herze. On these and his earlier collaborations, Auden would later write: “collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had.”
From 1956 until 1961, Auden held the position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a prestigious part-time position that only required he give three lectures per year. This gave him time to winter on St. Mark’s Place, New York and continue to summer in Austria. For work he gave readings and lectures and wrote for the New Yorker. Several of his lectures from this period were collected in 1962 into The Dyer’s Hand.
Throughout the sixties and into the seventies, Auden wrote a book of poetry every three years. The last collection he completed in his lifetime was 1972’s Epistle to a Godson. Some critics said that his poetry had declined since the 1940s and ‘50s, when highly-regarded modernist poet John Ashbery had called Auden “the modern poet.” But Edward Mendelson, literary executor of the estate of W.H. Auden, argued that this was not a decline, but just a change—perhaps a departure from the usual modernist style. Mendelson says in his introduction to Auden’s Selected Poems that “most critics of twentieth-century poetry judged poems by their conformity to modernist norms,” and that “except in his earliest and latest poems, there is virtually nothing modernist about [Auden].”
Mendelson writes in an essay entitled “Auden’s Revision of Modernism” that the poet “welcomed into his poetry all the disordered conditions of his time, all its variety of language and event.” This is in stark contrast to the nostalgia and aversion to the present of the major modernists like William Butler Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, or Ezra Pound.
Regardless of how his style is classified, Auden is known for being obscure and inaccessible at times. Isherwood says: “When Auden was younger, he was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he would keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way, whole poems were consctructed which were simply anthologies of my favourite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of much of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.”
Though it is common advice for poets to avoid abstract concepts and focus on concrete imagery, Harold Bloom quotes John Hollander as writing that “It is a peculiarity of Auden’s own kind of poetic modernity that he has never felt the concept to be the enemy of the image, or discourse to be destructive of poetry.” Auden’s scientific allusions and technical jargon contribute further to his inaccessibility.
Though he wrote many politically-charged poems and associated himself with left-wing intellectuals like Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Christopher Isherwood, Auden believed later in life that the arts could do nothing to affect politics. As he puts it in his elegiac poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper.” Auden told the Paris Review in 1972 that “The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al., had never lived.” Such art, he says, will merely “enhance [a poet’s] literary reputation among those who feel the same as he does.”
Auden was even known for going back and rejecting poems whose messages he no longer (or perhaps never) believed. The fact that “Spain” was widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of Spanish Civil War literature did not stop him from rejecting the poem, which he thought dishonest, in later collections. Auden did much the same with one of his other most popular works, “September 1, 1939,” a poem about the onset of World War II. One of the poem’s stanzas ends with the line “We must love one another or die”; upon rereading this line Auden wrote that he said to himself: “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” This eventually led to him scrapping the entire poem.
In 1973, Auden died in his sleep in an old Vienna hotel, at the age of 66. He left an unfinished book of poems that was published posthumously under the title Thank You Fog. Included in this book were “Shorts,” three- or four-line poems that resembled proverbs, for example:
Man must either fall in love
with Someone or Something,
or else fall ill.
Along with several plays and libretti, W.H. Auden had published about four hundred poems in his lifetime, and an even larger number of essays and reviews. He was buried in Kirchstetten. His funeral procession began in his cottage on Audenstrasse, a street that had recently been renamed in his honor.
Poems. London: Faber, 1930.
The Ascent of F6. (With Christopher Isherwood). London: Faber, 1936.
On This Island. (British title: Look, Stranger!) New York: Random House, 1937.
Letters From Iceland. (With Louis MacNeice). New York: Random House, 1937.
Journey to a War. (With Christopher Isherwood). New York: Random House, 1939.
Another Time. New York: Random House, 1940.
The Double Man. (British title: New Year Letter.) New York: Random House, 1941.
The Rake’s Progress. (With Chester Kallman). Music by Igor Stravinsky. 1951.
Elegy for Young Lovers. (With Chester Kallman). Music by Hans Werner Henze. 1961.
The Dyer’s Hand. New York: Random House, 1962.
Epistle to a Godson. New York: Random House, 1972.
Thank You, Fog. New York: Random House, 1974.
Auden, W. H., and Edward Mendelson. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage International, 2007.
Auden, Wystan Hugh. “W.H. Auden: The Art of Poetry No. 17.” Interview by Michael Newman. The Paris Review Spring 1974.
Bloom, Harold. W.H. Auden. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Farnan, Dorothy J. Auden in Love: The Intimate Story of a Lifelong Love Affair. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
In the Shadow of Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story. Andrea Weiss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.