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Auden's Cottage: Advent Doors 2018

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Sunday, December 16, 2018

From a brewhouse to the home of one of the most important literary figures of the 20th Century – there can’t be many buildings that have seen this much change! This door marks the entrance to a cottage lived in by W H Auden, who returned to Christ Church, his alma mater, in later life.

Door to Auden's CottageThis building is hidden away just to the south of the Hall, in a part of the college that few people ever even notice, other than as part of the view of Tom Quad and the Hall from the Memorial Garden. But look a little closer, and this unassuming building has some fascinating stories just waiting to be uncovered.

This was originally the college’s southern brewhouse (yes, we did have two – and I’m sure many would say quite rightly so – the northern one is located in what is now Blue Boar Quad, and houses our archives), but there’s very little known about its history after it was built. So stop all the clocks in the 1970s, when the story of this building suddenly takes a different turn.

The poet W H Auden studied at Christ Church, leaving with a third in English in 1928. He’d moved to America later in his career, but around 1969 started hinting that he’d like to return to his old college to live out the rest of his days. In early 1972 he was offered an honorary studentship at Christ Church, and the former brewhouse was adapted into a cottage where he could live.

He arrived at Christ Church that Autumn, but both Oxford and his old college had changed a lot in the intervening years. The city was noisy and crowded, and Auden himself was also different; ill and unhappy, he was no longer the brilliant conversationalist many of the dons remembered. Sadly, Auden didn’t get to spend much time back at Christ Church - he died of heart failure in Vienna on 29th September 1973. A year later he received a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. We also have our own memorial to Auden in the Chapel of Remembrance in the Cathedral, where Auden often used to sit when he returned to Christ Church.

These days, Auden Cottage is occupied by the Cathedral’s Sub-Organist. And who would guess that behind this inconspicuous door is a home once lived in by one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century?

You can read more about Auden’s life and his time in Oxford in his Pen Portrait on the Cathedral Blog.