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Encyclopedia > W.H. Auden
Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

Wystan Hugh Auden (February 21, 1907September 29, 1973) was an English poet.



Auden was born in York and spent his early childhood in Harborne, Birmingham, where his father Dr George Auden was the school medical officer for Birmingham and Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham. From the age of eight Auden was sent away to boarding schools, first in Surrey and later Norfolk, but he returned to Birmingham for the holidays.

He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University, but took only a third-class degree. After Oxford he went to live for a year in Weimar Berlin, in whose tolerant atmosphere his homosexuality could be more openly expressed. On returning to England, he taught at three boys' schools from 1930 to 1935. The most important of these, and where he was happiest, was the Downs School, near Great Malvern. Here he spent three years and wrote some of his finest early love poems: including This lunar beauty; "Lay your sleeping head, my love"; "Fish in the unruffled lakes"; and "Out on the lawn I lie in bed".

Auden married Erika Mann, lesbian daughter of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, in 1935. The motive for this was to provide his bride with a passport to escape the Third Reich. They had no children.

Auden settled in the United States in 1939 and became a US citizen. This move away from England, just as the Second World War was starting, was seen by many as a betrayal and his poetic reputation suffered briefly as a result. Having spent many years in the United States he returned to Europe during the last years of his life and spent that time predominantly in Austria, and Oxford in the UK; he had been Professor of Poetry at Oxford University during the 1950s. He died in Vienna in 1973.


Auden wrote a considerable body of criticism and essays as well as co-authoring some drama with his friend Christopher Isherwood, but he is primarily known as a poet. Auden's work is characterised by exceptional variety, ranging from such rigorous traditional forms as the villanelle to original yet intricate forms, as well as the technical and verbal skills Auden displayed regardless of form. He was also partly responsible for re-introducing Anglo-Saxon accentual meter to English poetry.

Before he turned to Anglo-Catholicism, Auden was deeply involved in left-wing political controversies of his day and some of his greatest work reflects these concerns, such as Spain, a poem on the Spanish Civil War and September 1, 1939 on the outbreak of World War II. Other memorable works include his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, The Unknown Citizen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, and poems on the deaths of William Butler Yeats and Sigmund Freud. Auden's poem Funeral Blues was movingly read in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Before this Auden's work was famously used in the GPO Film Unit's documentary film Night Mail.

Auden was part of a group of like-minded writers including Edward Upward, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. He also collaborated closely with musicians.

Further reading

  • Humphrey Carpenter. W. H. Auden: a biography. (1981)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines. Auden (1995)

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • The W.H. Auden Society (http://www.audensociety.org)
  • A biography of Auden (http://www3.shropshire-cc.gov.uk/auden.htm)



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