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W.H. Auden

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2018

PEN PORTRAIT No 6

Pen Portrait of W.H. Auden by Jim GodfreyW. H. Auden, regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, was a poet, author and playwright. He won the Pulitizer Prize in 1948 and was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, 1956 – 61

 

"Dance, dance, for the figure is easy..."

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York on 21 February 1907. He was the youngest of three sons born to George and Constance Auden. His father was the medical officer for the city of Birmingham, and a psychologist. His mother, to whom he was very close, was a rather strict Anglican. A combination of religious and scientific themes can be found throughout Auden's work.

In 1925 he went up to Christ Church with a scholarship in natural science, switching to English by his second year. At Oxford, fellow undergraduates Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender and Auden himself, formed the group later called the "Auden Generation." He affected an unconventional air, sometimes wearing a monocle or carrying a walking cane. Spencer wrote of him that ‘for his Oxford contemporaries the most impressive thing about Auden undoubtedly was that, at such an early age, he was so confident and conscious a master of his situation.’ He very much enjoyed the good life at Christ Church but left Oxford with a third-class degree.

In 1930, with the help of T.S. Eliot, Auden published a collection of poetry called ‘Poems’. The success of this collection positioned him as a leading exponent of literature in the 20th century. Auden was lauded for his chameleon-like ability to write poems in almost every verse form, his work influencing aspiring poets, popular culture and vernacular speech.

Auden moved to America with Christopher Isherwood in 1939. His departure from Britain was later seen by many as a betrayal, and his reputation suffered. It was there that he met and fell in love with fellow poet Chester Kallman. Their relationship, which Auden often referred to as a ‘marriage’, would last for the rest of his life. Shortly after arriving in America Auden joined the Episcopal Church, returning to the Anglican Communion he had abandoned as a teenager. In 1946 he became a naturalised US citizen.

 

"...Dance, dance, dance till you drop."

Over the next decade, Auden continued to write prolifically. In 1956 he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford. During his five years in the post he established himself as one of the most stimulating writers to hold the position. It meant giving three lectures and spending three weeks each year in Oxford. Auden went to great lengths to make himself available to all wanting to talk to him. He would sit in a café in Cornmarket in his carpet slippers entertaining the company with witty and provocative conversation.

In 1958 Auden and Chester Kallman bought a farmhouse in Kirchstetten, a small village near Vienna, Austria. It was where he finally felt at home, a place where he could spend time writing in peace and quiet. For the next 15 years they spent their summers in Kirchstetten and their winters in New York.

With his health waning Auden left America in 1972, moving back to Oxford where he was offered a small cottage in a Canons’ garden at Christ Church. As an Honorary Student he still had membership of the Senior Common Room, but his presence was not universally welcomed, some feeling that his former rather louche life-style would reflect badly on the College. Auden himself found Oxford less congenial than before and he was no longer the celebrity he had once been. Always a chain smoker, he was now drinking heavily and cut rather a lonely figure in College. He did, however, continue his former practice of making himself available to undergraduates to discuss poetry, and could be found in St Aldates Coffee House (now G&Ds) at 4pm every afternoon.

He continued to summer in Austria, and died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure in a hotel in Vienna on 29 September 1973. He had been giving a recital of his poetry there whilst on his way back to Oxford for the Michaelmas Term. He was given a traditional Church of England burial by an Anglican priest in Kirchstetten, and, a year later, on 2 October 1974, his memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey was unveiled.

 

At Christ Church, Auden is commemorated by a plaque in the floor of the Chapel of Remembrance (where he had attended holy communion early on Sunday mornings). The line ‘Bless what there is for being’ is taken from his poem ‘Precious Five’. A portrait of him also hangs in the Great Hall.