W. H. Auden, was an Anglo-American poet, born in England, later an American citizen, 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.
W.H. Auden (1907–1973) was born in North Yorkshire, England, the son of a doctor. He studied at Oxford and published his first book, Poems, in 1930, immediately establishing himself as one of the outstanding voices of his generation. [...] He wrote essays, critical studies, plays, and opera librettos for such composers as Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, and Hans Werner Henze, as well as the poems for which he is most famous.
Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a "labor-saving device" in the "mental kitchen," with the important proviso that "these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down."
It also struck me as rare and quite noble that so English an Englishman should have such a love for New York: not the anthropological curiosity and patronizing romanticism many of his countrymen have for the city, but an outright love for it. He lived here long enough and was often back and forth when not living here.
W. H. Auden's remarkable long poem FOR THE TIME BEING: A Christmas Oratorio was written during the dark times of World War II. The poem is about 1500 lines long, or 52 pages. (For comparison: Shakespeare's Macbeth is about 2100 lines long.)
After dedicating himself to the art of poetry at the age of fifteen, Auden was quickly recognized as something of a prodigy. At twenty, while still an undergraduate at England's prestigious Oxford University, he co-edited the collection OXFORD POETRY, and became the leading personality in a small troop of burgeoning young writers — a group that included such noted talents as Cecil Day Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. Aged twenty-three, Auden had already published his first book, titled POEMS. Shortly thereafter, W. H. Auden earned international reknown and was acclaimed as a major force in twentieth century arts and letters.
Auden had officially become an American citizen just a few weeks before Commencement, [June, 1946]. He had been living in the United States since 1939, when he left his native England shortly before the outbreak of World War II. But this symbolic confirmation of his new nationality must have been on Auden’s mind when he wrote “Under Which Lyre,” a poem full of American references—from the New Yorker to Broadway to the “over-Whitmanated” style so popular with patriotic balladeers.
Throughout his career, Auden strove to stay morally engaged with, rather than aesthetically detached from, the wars and genocides of the twentieth century. Because these were immediate rather than historical crises, Auden had a tough line to walk. He wanted to save mankind but also save his work from the trash heap, to address contemporary fears with both urgency and permanence.
W.H. Auden, a poet next to W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and the leader of Oxford Group, imbibed various and contradictory influences including psychological, Marxist and religious on the way to the acceptance of life with stoicism and equanimity. His poetic mind involved owning and disowning these influences. He set off in quest of life to soothe the suffering mankind. He was a spokesman of a common man. He gave vent to his despair, concern and feelings in his poetry. He captured in his poetry the spirit of his times and portrayed various social, political and religious problems.
Before coming to the United States in early 1939, Auden’s varying leftist political convictions included a belief in the natural goodness of humans and the power of reason to bring about a better world. But the mounting aggression of Hitler and his followers shook that belief. Auden himself later recalled how a few months after the invasion he went to a theater in a German- American district of Manhattan and saw a German newsreel depicting the attack. He was shocked when “quite ordinary, supposedly harmless Germans in the audience. . . [began] “shouting ‘Kill the Poles.’”17 This experience fuelled his already gnawing doubts about the sufficiency of the liberal philosophy that had sustained him earlier in the 1930s.
In his prose works, Auden often commented on the long history and traditional practices of English-lan- guage versifying. He reflected on his own century’s poetic needs. Over time, he dropped many hints about his aesthetics and his hopes for translating his thoughts about culture and society into what he came to consid- er an appropriate poetic style for his own era.
Auden's poetry denies reverence to contemporary standards, such as free verse, and refuses to accept the great models of its time, Yeats and Eliot. Instead it prefers decidedly unfashionable poetic ancestors, such as Housman and Kipling, and forms as dusty as Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon verse. But just as much as it ignores current norms and fashions, it is eager to create a tradition of its own. […] Auden's poetry aims to set standards whose benchmark becomes the problematic adjective 'new'.
…Auden is more than a double man, he is a multiple man, attempting to compress a whole world of identities into a single person and lifetimes. His life represents an almost emblematic search for wholeness, for integrity, for a way of fusing the contradictions of private and public existence, just as in his work he sought to reconcile the often conflicting claims of individual and society.
Auden's sexual orientation was widely known during his life, but it was almost never regarded as a factor in scholarly discussions of his poetry, much of which followed the generalizing discourse (encouraged by the poet himself) that made even his most personal lyrics of same-sex desire applicable to "universal" human experience.
W.H. Auden paid little heed to reviews of his work, and evidently felt little respect for his reviewers (with exceptions including Geoffrey Grigson and Edmund Wilson whom he admired). While his friend Rex Warner recalls, 'As a poet he belonged to an "irritable genus", but enjoyed praise as much as anyone', Auden's unconcern for, and indeed unconsciousness of, his critical reception is confirmed by many of his other close friends […]. 'You must remember that critics write for the public, not for me,' he told interviewers late on life.
'Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: "memorable speech"', W. H. Auden wrote in the Introduction to his 1935 anthology, The Poet's Tongue. Auden is one of the few modern poets whose words inhabit the popular memory.