Childhood & Early Life
W. H. Auden was born on February 21, 1907 in York, England as the third son to George Augustus, who was a physician, and Constance Rosalie, a trained missionary nurse and a strict Anglican.
He had two elder brothers; George Bernard who became a farmer and John Bicknell who grew up to be a geologist. Auden realized that he had lost his faith during his teens.
His first went to the St. Edmund’s School in Surrey and when he was 13 joined the Gresham’s School in Norfolk where his first poems were published in 1923. He eventually graduated with a third-class degree in 1928 from Christ Church, Oxford University.
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Auden’s first book titled ‘Poems’ featured an approximate 20 poems and was published privately by his friend, Stephen Spender, in 1928.
After graduation W. H. Auden went to Berlin for a few months and there he fell in love with the German language and poetry. He returned, and in 1930 became a schoolmaster in Scotland and England for the next five years.
In 1930 Auden published another collection by the same name ‘Poems’ which included a drama and 30 short poems. The book featured his first dramatic work ‘Paid on Both Sides: A Charade’ which was a fascinating amalgam of Icelandic sagas and English school life.
In several of his works he constantly highlighted the difference between the biological and the psychological evolution of individuals and their cultures, and maintained a certain obsession with unseen psychological effects (or his so-called family ghosts).
In the 1930s he was regarded as a political poet as his work expressed left-wing views and he continuously analyzed the evils of Capitalist society. In many poems he dwells on bringing a revolutionary change in the society through a change in the hearts of the people.
He also ventured into the film industry and he worked with the G.P.O. Film Unit and wrote his famous verse commentary for the 1936 documentary film ‘Night Mail’.
The 31-poem book ’Look, Stranger’ was released in UK, in 1936, and in U.S. in 1937 with the title ‘On This Island’, which was Auden’s preferred title.
His work ’Letters from Iceland’ (1937) is a travel book in prose and verse, co-written with Louis MacNeice, which features a series of letters and travel notes by the two during their trip to Iceland. His poem ‘Spain’ was an account of his experiences in Spain during the civil war of 1936 to 1939.
In 1940 varying reasons led him back to his Anglican Communion and he joined the Episcopal Church. His return to religion also left an impression on his writing as now the themes were more religious and spiritual, rather than political. With more writing, he became quite comfortable and apt and soon started using syllabic verses.
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He taught English at the Michigan University in 1941 for a year and then at the Swarthmore College for the next three years.
In the summer of 1945 he underwent a yet another inspiration-drawing stay in Germany with the US Strategic Bombing Survey, where he studied the effects of US bombing on the German morale.
He settled in Manhattan after coming back from Germany and became a lecturer at The New School for Social Research. He also served as a visiting professor at numerous other colleges and became a naturalized US citizen in 1946.
From 1948 to 1957 he spent some months in Europe every year and incorporated these experiences in several poems including ‘A Walk after Dark’ and ‘The Love Feast’.
From the early 1960s he started increasing his range of styles which could be easily seen in his books like ‘Homage to Clio’ (1960), ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ (1962), and ‘About the House’ (1965).
The poems ‘Prologue at Sixty’ and ‘Forty Years On’ were published in the 1969 book ‘City without Walls’ and described the poet’s life so far.
’A Certain World: A Commonplace Book’ was published in 1970 and acted as a self-portrait for Auden. The book contained his selected quotations in an alphabetical sequence.
In his last books of verses, ‘Epistle to a Godson’ (1972) and the unfinished ‘Thank You, Fog’ the themes focused on language and the poet’s ageing.
Personal Life & Legacy
W. H. Auden married only once in his life and that too was to help a friend, Erika Mann, get British Citizenship so that she could escape from the clutches of the Nazi Germans. The marriage remained unconsummated and the couple parted ways soon after.
After shifting to the US from Britain in 1939 he met the love of his life – Chester Kallman. Kallman too was a poet and the couple remained as lovers for the next two years. As Kallman feared commitment she eventually distanced herself from the relationship but remained a lifetime friend of Auden and shared a house with him till his demise on 29 September 1973.