Literature – W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden – One of the greatest writers of the 20th century

Wystan Hugh Auden, known more commonly as W. H. Auden, was born on the 21st February 1907, in York. Auden was the third of three children, all sons.

Auden’s first school was St. Edmund’s School, Hindhead, Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood. At 13 he went to Gresham’s School in Norfolk. Until 1922 Auden expected to pursue a career as a mining engineer, and the abandoned lead mines of northern England were a “sacred landscape” for him. Then a school friend Robert Medley who was two years ahead of him, first suggested that he might write poetry.

Auden’s first poems appeared in 1923 in the school magazine The Gresham. In 1925 Auden went to Christ Church, Oxford University, with a scholarship to study biology. He soon switched to Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), then to English.

In a visit to London during Auden’s first year at Oxford, another friend, A.S.T. Fisher, reintroduced him to Christopher Isherwood. Auden soon began using Isherwood as his literary mentor, and for the next few years his poems to Isherwood for comments and criticism. Auden seems to have fallen in love with Isherwood, who may not have been aware of the intensity of Auden’s feelings, and the two maintained an intermittent sexual friendship until 1939, although each was more intent on relations with others.

Auden was chosen by the publisher Basil Blackwell as co-editor of the annual Oxford Poetry collection in 1926 and 1927.He left Oxford in 1928, with only a third-class degree.

Auden’s parents give him an allowance that lasted until his twenty-second birthday, so he did not begin working for a living immediately after Oxford. In the autumn of 1928 he left Britain for about nine months in Weimar Berlin. On returning to Britain in 1929, Auden briefly worked as a tutor in London. In 1930 his first published book, Poems, was accepted by T. S. Eliot on behalf of Faber & Faber, who remained his publishers for the rest of his life.

In 1930 he began a five-year career as a schoolmaster at boys’ schools. While teaching (1930–2) at the Larchfield School, Helensburgh (later Larchfield Academy and now Lomond School) wrote The Orators: An English Study, drawing on many local figures and places.

The Helensburgh and Gareloch Times records that at the annual Prize Day in 1932 pupils performed a play specially written for them by Auden, Sherlock Holmes Chez Duhamel (now lost). Auden also embarked on an intense and ill-starred affair with the son of a Clydebank iron-founder, the prototype of ‘Derek my chum’ in The Orators, with whom he visited the Shetland Islands.

He also wrote, rather uncharitably, of Helensburgh’s reputation as ‘a snob town’

Then he taught for three years at the Downs School, near Great Malvern, where he was happier than he had been at Larchfield, and where he wrote some of his best-known early poems, including “Out on the lawn I lie in bed”.

In 1935 Auden made a marriage of convenience to Erika Mann, lesbian daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann, in order to provide her with a British passport to escape the Third Reich. They shook hands after the ceremony and saw each other again only a few times, mostly in America during the early 1940s, but they remained friendly and never bothered to divorce.

After Auden left the Downs School in 1935 he worked mostly a freelancer for the next three years, first with The G.P.O. (General Post Office) Film Unit.

His poems in the 1940s explored religious and ethical themes in a less dramatic manner than his earlier works, but still combined new forms devised by Auden himself with traditional forms and styles. In the 1950s and 1960s many of his poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions, and he took a particular interest in writing opera librettos, a form ideally suited to direct expression of strong feelings.

He was also a prolific writer of prose essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological and religious subjects, and he worked at various times on documentary films, poetic plays and other forms of performance. Throughout his career he was both controversial and influential.

Auden was a frequent correspondent and long time friend (although they rarely saw each other) of J.R.R. Tolkien, who died three weeks before Auden. He was among the most prominent early critics to praise The Lord of the Rings.

Auden died on the 29th September 1973 in Vienna, Austria.