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Auden, W H

Category: Poet

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907– 1973), was an English poet who later became an American citizen.  Auden published about four hundred poems, including seven long poems. He also wrote more than four hundred essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion, and many other subjects. He collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood and on opera libretti with Chester Kallman, worked with a group of artists and filmmakers on documentary films in the 1930s and with the New York Pro Musica early music group in the 1950s and 1960s.

So what was it that provided Auden with so much inspiration?

He went to Oxford University and had many friends, his friends uniformly describing him as funny and sympathetic. At  the Downs School, in the Malvern Hills,  he was a much-loved teacher, he experienced what he later described as a "Vision of Agape," when, while sitting with three fellow-teachers at the school, he suddenly found that he loved them for themselves, that their existence had infinite value for him. 

About collaboration he wrote in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy .... than any sexual relations I have had.". 

He wrote about otherwise ordinary individuals who were "silly like us" (Yeats) or of whom it could be said "he wasn't clever at all" (Freud), but who were destined to have an impact because of their ordinariness – their humanness.  And he extended this theme when he explored  the "sacred importance" of the human body in its ordinary aspect (breathing, sleeping, eating)  and in poems like "Dame Kind", about the anonymous impersonal reproductive instinct.


So a huge driver was his love for his fellow man – Friendship and companionship.

His friends also uniformly described him as extravagant and generous.  Throughout his life, he performed charitable acts, sometimes in public - as in his marriage of convenience to Erika Mann in 1935 that gave her a British passport with which to escape the Nazis, - but, especially in later years, more often in private, and he was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed.

So we can add to the above Serving others [charity] and  Generosity.

Some described him as, partly by his own choice, 'lonely', or maybe they meant solitary.  Auden was homosexual and these were difficult times for homosexuals, the law was against them, as was the established church and much of establishment thinking in the UK, as well as other countries.  So here we have maybe just a touch of Angst.

Poets express in their poetry all their inner feelings, emotions and ideas, so what were Auden's principle themes?


He wrote about  politics and citizenship, religion and morals and  the corrupting effect of public and official culture on individual lives.  He wrote too of the effect of "family ghosts", Auden's term for the powerful, unseen psychological effects of preceding generations on any individual life.  But these poems somehow do not seem to capture his principle preoccupations – where his heart lay.

In 1938 he wrote a series of dark, ironic ballads about individual failure.  So he was not a man of high ego.

He also wrote of his love of nature in a  sequence of seven poems about man's relation to nature, "Bucolics."   His visits to the Pennine landscape are the theme of many of his poems; the remote decaying mining village of Rookhope was for him a "sacred landscape", evoked in a late poem, "Amor Loci", so maybe we can add Communing with nature to our growing list.

Auden [right] with Christopher Isherwood

But now we can start to home in on an enduring theme.  Many of his poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions, so we know from this he was an emotional man himself.  His poems in the late 1920s alluded to loneliness and loss.  His  book entitled Poems (1930),  contained works which were mostly about hoped-for or unconsummated love.   On This Island  also included  love poems and of the possibilities and problems of personal love.  His shorter poems dwelt on  the fragility and transience of personal love ("Danse Macabre", "The Dream", "Lay your sleeping head",  "O Tell Me the Truth About Love" ).

Auden was probably in love with  Christopher Isherwood, and in the 1930s they maintained a sexual friendship but it was not a 'faithful' one, both had  relations with others. His relations (and his unsuccessful courtships) tended to be unequal either in age or intelligence; his sexual relations were transient, although some evolved into long friendships.

Chester Kallman and WH Auden

He contrasted these relations with what he later regarded as the "marriage" (his word) of equals that he began with Chester Kallman in 1939.  So what he really longed for was not sex, but love and not just love but marriage -  the union of two people deeply in love for life.

He suffered from unrequited love.

Many of his poems during the 1930s and afterward were inspired by unrequited love, and in the 1950s he summarized his emotional life in a famous couplet:

"If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me"
("The More Loving One").

He never really achieved this union and his focus seems to me to have centred more and more on what he termed his idealized "Alter Ego" rather than on individual persons.   So he loved his Higher spirit, which makes him a deeply spiritual man and a man who probably practised Love with visualisation.

Auden began summering in Europe in 1948, first in Ischia, Italy, where he rented a house, then, starting 1958, in Kirchstetten, Austria where he bought a farmhouse, and, he said, shed tears of joy at owning a home for the first time.   In 1972, he moved his winter home from New York to Oxford, where his old college, Christ Church, offered him a cottage, but he continued to summer in Austria. He died in Vienna in 1973.

After his death, some of his poems, notably "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks"), "Musée des Beaux Arts", "Refugee Blues", "The Unknown Citizen", and "September 1, 1939", became widely known through films, broadcasts, and popular media.

What a nice man.

What stunning poetry.


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