W. H. Auden: A Biographical Sketch

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      Wystan Hugh Auden is the most consistently interesting and variously gifted poet born in the twentieth century, (nineteen thirties). He was burn on February 21, 1907, in York, in a professional middle-class family. He was the third son of George Augustus and Constance Rosalie (Bicknell) Auden. His father was a Medical Officer of Health with wide interest, and his mother had been a nurse. Auden's family settled in Birmingham and Dr. Auden became the Medical Officer and Professor of Public Health at Birmingham University. The home atmosphere was scientific, the library full of books on geology and machines, and it was intended that Auden should become an engineer. He went to "prep-school (St. Edmund's school) in 1915.

Auden was at Christ Church, oxford, from 1925 to 1928. His tutor was Nevil Coghill (of Exeter College) and Auden responded to the impact of old English verse as well as the provocatively modern poems of T.S. Eliot. Auden started writing poetry when he was in oxford.
W. H. Auden

Auden at Oxford:

      Auden was at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1925 to 1928. His tutor was Nevil Coghill (of Exeter College) and Auden responded to the impact of old English verse as well as the provocatively modern poems of T.S. Eliot. Auden started writing poetry when he was in oxford. His interest in poetry increased tremendously. He became the editor of the "Oxford Poetry" which he edited with Charles Plumule in 1926 and with Cecil Day Lewis in 1927. Here he also made friends with Stephen Spender and other potential writers who later became known as the Auden Group". Seemingly Auden at this time read a good deal of psychology, analyzed and advised his friends, and conceived the poet as a detached, clinical analyst of men and society, diagnosing individual or social ills, and applying poetry to them as a sort of psychological therapy.

The New Country Group:

      Early in the second half of the inter-war period, a new group of young poets began to attract attention. They had been friends at Oxford where they were undergraduates in 1927-1929. They were W.H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, the son of an Irish Clergyman, Stephen Spender, a youth of Anglo-Jewish descent from a London Suburban home, and Louis Mac-Neice, a brilliant classical scholar. The whole of this New Country group, as they have been called, reached strongly against the doctrine of 'art for art's sake' and what they called "luxury poetry". The group was dominated by the powerful personality W.H. Auden. Auden's first volume of poems, dedicated to Isherwood, was handprinted by Stephen Spender at Oxford in 1928. Among the imitation of Hopkins, we find un-romantic descriptive passages.

The New Psychology with the Berlin Visit:

      After Auden came out of Oxford in 1928, he went to Germany and stayed in Berlin for sometime. Auden tells us that his parents offered him a year abroad and he unexpectedly chose Germany. Here he came into contact with German Calearet songs, Reke's poetry, the theatre of Brecht, and the psychological ideas of John Layard (leased on Frend and Groddeck lent more immediately on Homer Lane). In March 1929, Isherwood joined Auden in Berlin. The impression made by the Weimar Republic is to be felt in his early poems.

Auden's Literary Career begins:

      After staying in Berlin for some time Auden returned home and became a school master - a job which he really enjoyed and in which he was eminently successful. Meanwhile, he kept up his interest in poetry and acquired a good deal of literary success. In 1933 he married a girl called Erika Mann and after a year gave up his job and went to Ireland with Louis Mac Neice for a couple of months. In 1937, he made a trip to Spain to have a first-hand idea of the civil war raging there, and on return to England published his famous poem Spain. On January 18, 1939 Auden and Isherwood left England to live in America, and in 1946 acquired American citizenship. But Auden kept on writing and publishing poetry and visiting Europe now and then. In 1956 he was appointed as a professor of poetry at Oxford. He held the post with great distinction until 1961 when he was succeeded by Robert Graves.

Frequent Foreign Visit: Amazing Personality

      Frequent visit to foreign countries is an important feature of Auden's literary life. His stay in Germany was followed by a trip to Iceland with another Birmingham School-master poet, Louis Mac Neice, with whom he wrote the Letter - from Iceland 1937. The 1936 also saw the production of the Ascent of F6, Auden's best-known play written with Isherwood and the publication of a new volume of poems, is Look Stranger! It was dedicated to Erika Mann, daughter of the celebrated German novelist Thomas Mann. In 1938 he went to china with Isherwood. They traveled by way of the United States and says John Lehmann, both decided during this trip to return and settle in America - a decision which caused the left-wing circles to accuse them of abandoning the European political struggle with which they had been identified. On the Frontier written with Isherwood was produced this same year and was their most explicit play. In 1938 he also edited. The Oxford book of Light Verse. Auden jointly with Isherwood published Journey to a war in 1939. In 1940 he published Another time In 1941 he taught at the University of Michiyan. He also collaborated with Benjamin Britten on Paul Bonnyan, a choral operetta, 1941. He also published For the Time Being (1944), The Age of Anxiety (1947) and edited A Selection of the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson (1944) and Yale Series of Younger Poets (1947-57). In 1950 were published collected Shorter Poems, (1930-1944), and the Enchafed Flood; or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea. In 1946 he became a U.S. citizen, and in 1948 he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He taught at St. Mark's School, Mass, and the New School for Social Research, N.Y.

      He was awarded Bollingen Prize for 1953, and was elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Shield of Achilles was published in 1955. He received the National Book Award.

Summing Up:

      The nineteen thirties were a period of severe economic depression in England as in America. The after-effects of the First World War plunged the entire country into gloom. The people in this age were groaning under cruelty oppression and social injustice. There was a feeling of dejection and frustration all around. It was a period as Auden desired it, of "Smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges," and "a time of crisis and dismay" Auden who was trying to make his mark as a poet at this time naturally became interested in the condition of the people and the problems with which they were confronted. Some writers became interested in Marxism. They firmly viewed that there could be no justification for the theory of "art for art's sake" at a time of oppression and cruelty. Thus writers of the thirties including Stephen Spender, Cecil Day, Lewis and Louis Mac Neice had come under the Marxist influence. Auden also saw a ray of hope in this ideology. Auden was convinced that the post-war civilization was disintegrating, he thought it his moral duty to protect it, and so decided to employ his art in the service of society. Soon he became a champion of social justice and began to emphasize the need for a revolution to bring about the necessary change in the structure of society.

      Auden was also influenced by Freud Groddeck and Homer Lane in his approach to the problems of his time. Auden learned from Homer Lane the need and value of the "change of heart" for the betterment of the masses. Auden's psychological interests were very deep and varied, even greater than his social and political interests. The 'lonely and the unhappy' bothered him most and he endeavored to bring them solace and comfort through his understanding of human psychology.

      From 1956-1961 Auden was a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He published Homage to Clio in 1960 and About the House in 1966. Auden has influenced many poets in Britain and America, but his specific influence has been on technique and attitude.


      A spokesman of the masses (whom he contemplated with warm understanding, compassion and deep insight) Auden showed clearly in his early poetry a faith in violent social upheaval as a means to a better order. Yet he was out-spokenly anti-romantic and like others in his group of writer, friends stressed the importance of 'clinical' and 'objective' attitudes. Auden had an extraordinary quality and ability to experience and express the spirit of the age.

      Auden deliberately tried to prevent poetry from becoming exclusively "highbrow, and found subjects among the everyday, often sordid realities of a diseased social order. Modern influences strongly felt in his work were those of the psychologists, particularly of Freud, and Auden was profoundly conscious of sex and its importance in human relationships. Auden's approach to every thing around him was that of the intelligent intellectual, and he followed Eliot in his partiality for the poetry of the Metaphysicals, especially in their use of allegory and of detailed images unified into a pattern. It is therefore not unexpectedly, that one finds much of his best work in exquisite and often movingly tender lyrics, songs and sonnets, where he is best concerned with sociological theories.

      The readers should not forget that he was a poet of landscape - sometimes the wild, empty hills and barren places, sometimes the industrial scene with its crowd figures. Stephen Spender, described Auden as the most accomplished technician then writing poetry in English. Auden was essentially modern in tone and had a wide variety of styles - often gaiety, often in cynically satirical vein, and on occasions, he could be strongly 'tough'.

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