Wystan H. Auden

1907 - 1973

English-born American poet, whose varied poetic work is some of the most outstanding of the 21st century

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England in February 1907 into an upper class family. Eldest of three sons, Auden's father was a physician and his mother a former nurse. Auden enjoyed a warm relationship with his father, and the medical and scientific influence became a motif of his early poetic work, which is filled with recurrent images of disease, healing and the bodily functions.

After Auden's college graduation in 1928, he spent a year abroad in Berlin. This came at a time of his life when Auden was becoming increasingly concerned about his homosexuality. Homosexuality was condemned by the standards of his religious upbringing and was a activity was a criminal offence in England. Furthermore, Freud, who Auden read regularly during his college career, suggested that it was indicative of immaturity. In Berlin, Auden was exposed to lifestyle much freeer than that of England and decided to acknowledge his sexual orientation and live by its restrictions and demands.

His year abroad was complimented by a variety of other new experiences which had marked influences on the poet's works. He traveled extensively, spending several months in Japan and China, and he served briefly in the Spanish Civil War as an ambulance driver. By the mid 1930s, Auden had witnessed the First World War and numerous other conflicts over ideology. In the Spanish Civil War, he observed first hand the death and destruction that such conflicts could bring, and was appalled at the thought that an entire nation could become indoctrinated with the victor's ideologies. His poem 'In Time of War' shows a detachment from the events of the war, suggesting that Auden considered war objectively and deliberated on its consequences.

These experiences were paramount in Auden's development of a personal brand of Marxism. In his early years, he was always very open to political, scientific and psychological influences, and Marxism perpetuated his work so strongly that Marx himself appears at the end of a dramatic piece, The Dance of Death. In addition to promoting socialism, Auden had some more general political opinions. He held that it was the duty of the citizens of a nation to continually question the social and political climate in which they found themselves. Unquestionably, this skepticism was as a result of Auden's experiences with both the First World War and the Spanish Civil War.

-- an extract from an essay hosted on LiteratureClassics.com about the life and works of W.H. Auden. To access the full text of this keynote essay, and others about the same author, see under the 'essays' heading below.


Life and Works of WH Auden -- Examines the life of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century; his diverse range of works, the poetic and the literary techniques he employs in his work.

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