Historic Humanists- Auden, W. H.

“The only reason the Protestants and Catholics have given up the idea of universal domination is because they’ve realised they can’t get away with it.”
–W. H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden was an English poet, often cited as one of the most influential of the 20th century. He spent the first part of his life in the United Kingdom, but emigrated to the United States in 1939, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1946.

Wystan Hugh 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, firstly at St. Edmund’s School (Hindhead) in Surrey, and later Gresham’s School in 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 two 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”.

In 1935 Auden made a marriage of convenience to Erika Mann, lesbian daughter of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, in order to provide her with a British passport to escape the Third Reich. Although the “couple” never lived together, they remained friends and never bothered to divorce. Auden and Christopher Isherwood emigrated to the United States in 1939. 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.

Soon after arriving in New York, he gave a public reading with Isherwood and Louis MacNeice, at which he met the poet Chester Kallman for the first time. Kallman was to be his lover for a period of two years, but remained his companion for the rest of his life, and the two shared houses and apartments for most of the period from 1953 until Auden’s death in 1973, though the relationship was often troubled.

In 1940, Auden returned to the Anglican faith of his childhood when he joined the Episcopal Church of the United States; he was influenced in this reconversion partly through reading Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr. His conversion influenced his work significantly as he explored the parable and Christian-allegorical readings of Shakespeare’s plays. He regarded his sexuality as a sin that he would continue to commit, sometimes alluding to Augustine’s prayer, “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.”

His theology in his later years evolved from a highly inward and psychologically-oriented Protestantism in the early 1940s through a more Catholic-oriented interest in the significance of the body and in collective ritual in the later 1940s and 1950s, and finally to the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in which all belief in a supernatural God was regarded as something that needed to be outgrown in the modern world; Auden memorialized Bonhoeffer in his poem “Friday’s Child”.

Having spent the war years in the United States, Auden became a naturalized citizen in 1946, but returned to Europe during the summers starting in 1948, first in Italy then in Austria. From 1956 to 1961, Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, a post which required him to give only three lectures each year, so he spent only a few weeks at Oxford during his professorship. During the last year of his life he moved back from New York to Oxford, and he died in Vienna in 1973. He was buried near his summer home in Kirchstetten, Austria.

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.

An area of controversy is the extent to which Auden reworked poems in successive publications, and dropped several of his best-known poems from “collected” editions because he no longer felt they were honest or accurate. His literary executor, Edward Mendelson, makes the case in his introduction to Auden’s Selected Poems that this was in fact an affirmation of Auden’s serious belief in the power and importance of poetry. The Selected Poems include some of the verse Auden rejected, and early versions of some which he later revised.

Auden always saw himself as a northerner and had a lifelong allegiance to the high limestone moorland of the North Pennines in Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria, in particular the poignant remains of the once-thriving lead mining industry. Auden called it his ‘Mutterland’ and his ‘great good place’. Auden first went north (to Rookhope, County Durham) in 1919 and the Pennine landscapes excited a Wordsworthian visionary intensity in the twelve-year-old Wystan.

From 1921 Auden often stayed at his parents’ cottage near Keswick in Cumbria and some forty of the poems of the ‘20s and ‘30s and two influential plays Paid on Both Sides and The Dog Beneath the Skin are set in the North Pennines. The 1922 epiphany when Auden first became conscious of himself as a creative artist, occurred at Rookhope, when he dropped a stone down a flooded mineshaft.

References to the North Pennine area, and lead mining, occur constantly throughout Auden’s later life in both prose and verse, most notably in New Year Letter (1940); The Age of Anxiety (1947); Six Unexpected Days (Vogue article of 1954, an itinerary for Americans to drive through the North Pennines); Amor Loci (1965) and Prologue at Sixty (1967) where he calls himself a ‘Son of the North’.

Before he turned to Anglicanism Auden took an active interest 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 (both were later repudiated by Auden, and excluded from his Collected Poems). 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 ironic love poem Funeral Blues (originally written to be sung by a soprano friend of his, Hedli Anderson) 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, for which he wrote a verse commentary.

Auden was often thought of as part of a group of like-minded writers including Edward Upward, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice (with whom he collaborated on Letters from Iceland in 1936), Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender, although he himself stopped thinking of himself as part of a group after about the age of 24. He also collaborated closely with composers, writing an opera libretto for Benjamin Britten, and, in collaboration with Chester Kallman, a libretto for Igor Stravinsky and two libretti for Hans Werner Henze.

Auden was a frequent correspondent and longtime friend (although they rarely saw each other) of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was among the most prominent early critics to praise The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote in a 1971 letter, “I am… very deeply in Auden’s debt in recent years. His support of me and interest in my work has been one of my chief encouragements. He gave me very good reviews, notices and letters from the beginning when it was by no means a popular thing to do. He was, in fact, sneered at for it.”
His 1947 poem The Age of Anxiety was made into a Symphony by Leonard Bernstein.

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