Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 Ė 29 September 1973), who signed his works W. H. Auden, was an Anglo-American poet, regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His work is noted for its stylistic and technical achievements, its engagement with moral and political issues, and its variety of tone, form and content. The central themes of his poetry are love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.
Auden grew up in
Birmingham in a professional middle-class family and read English
literature at Christ Church, Oxford. His early poems, written in the
late 1920s and early 1930s, alternated between telegraphic modern styles
and fluent traditional ones, were written in an intense and dramatic
tone, and established his reputation as a left-wing political poet and
prophet. He became uncomfortable in this role in the later 1930s, and
abandoned it after he moved to the United States in 1939. His poems in
the 1940s explored religious and ethical themes in a less dramatic
manner than his earlier works, but still combined traditional forms and
styles with new forms devised by Auden himself. 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
Auden published about four hundred poems, including seven long poems (two of them book-length). His poetry was encyclopedic in scope and method, ranging in style from obscure twentieth-century modernism to the lucid traditional forms such as ballads and limericks, from doggerel through haiku and villanelles to a "Christmas Oratorio" and a baroque eclogue in Anglo-Saxon meters. The tone and content of his poems ranged from pop-song clichťs to complex philosophical meditations, from the corns on his toes to atoms and stars, from contemporary crises to the evolution of society.
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. About collaboration he wrote in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had".
Auden controversially rewrote or discarded some of his most famous poems when he prepared his later collected editions. He wrote that he rejected poems that he found "boring" or "dishonest" in the sense that they expressed views that he had never held but had used only because he felt they would be rhetorically effective. His rejected poems include "Spain" and "September 1, 1939". His literary executor, Edward Mendelson, argues in his introduction to Auden's Selected Poems that Auden's practice reflected his sense of the persuasive power of poetry and his reluctance to misuse it.
Reputation and influence
Audenís stature in modern literature has been disputed, with opinions ranging from that of Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him "a complete wash-out", to the obituarist in the Times (London), who wrote: "W. H. Auden, for long the enfant terrible of English poetry . . . emerges as its undisputed master".
In his enfant terrible stage in the 1930s he was both praised and dismissed as a progressive and accessible voice, in contrast to the politically nostalgic and poetically obscure voice of T. S. Eliot. His departure for America in 1939 was hotly debated in Britain (once even in Parliament), with some critics treating it as a betrayal, and the role of influential young poet passed to Dylan Thomas, although defenders such as Geoffrey Grigson, in an introduction to a 1949 anthology of modern poetry, wrote that Auden "arches over all". His stature was suggested by book titles such as Auden and After by Francis Scarfe (1942) and The Auden Generation by Samuel Hynes (1972).
In the US, starting in the late 1930s, the detached, ironic tone of Audenís regular stanzas set the style for a whole generation of poets; John Ashbery recalled that in the 1940s Auden "was the modern poet". His manner was so pervasive in American poetry that the ecstatic style of the Beat Generation was partly a reaction against his influence. In the 1950s and 1960s, some writers (notably Philip Larkin and Randall Jarrell) lamented that Audenís work had declined from its earlier promise.
By the time of Audenís death in 1973 he had attained the status of a respected elder statesman. The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that "by the time of Eliot's death in 1965 ... a convincing case could be made for the assertion that Auden was indeed Eliot's successor, as Eliot had inherited sole claim to supremacy when Yeats died in 1939". With some exceptions, British critics tended to treat his early work as his best, while American critics tended to favor his middle and later work. Unlike other modern poets, his reputation did not decline after his death, and Joseph Brodsky wrote that his was "the greatest mind of the twentieth century".
Audenís popularity and familiarity suddenly increased after his "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks") was read aloud in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); subsequently, a pamphlet edition of ten of his poems, Tell Me the Truth About Love, sold more than 275,000 copies. After September 11, 2001, his poem "September 1, 1939" was widely circulated and frequently broadcast. Public readings and broadcast tributes in the UK and US in 2007 marked his centenary year.