Saturday, September 17, 2005

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 - 1973)

The 'gun-shy myopic grandchild of Anglican clergymen,' Wystan Hugh Auden was to become one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
Educated at St Edmund's Preparatory School, Hindhead, Surrey (where Christopher Isherwood was a fellow pupil); Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk and Christ Church, Oxford, Auden focused on science but changed to English and graduated in 1928 with a third-class degree.
His early work, Poems (1930); The Orators (1932); The Dance of Death (1933) and Look, Stranger! (1936), made his reputation as a witty and technically accomplished writer. He collaborated with Christopher Isherwood on plays including The Dog beneath the Skin (1935) and The Ascent of F6 (1936).
His early work was socially committed left-wing writing. He read Marx and Freud, but was also influenced by the need to conceal that he was writing about his and his friends' homosexuality, which was illegal at that time. Later, he began to turn away from Marxism towards his mother's faith, which left a mark upon his poetry. His political sympathies took him to Spain in the 1930s to drive an ambulance in the Civil War, but instead, he spent his time writing propaganda and doing manual labour. Then in 1938, he and Isherwood visited China. On the way back, they visited America briefly, where they resolved to return for a longer visit. Back in England, they talked about their experiences and the general situation in China on radio and, in October 1938, in a television broadcast from Alexandra Palace.
'At the first squeak of an air raid warning...' Auden made his way to America, the year was 1939. There he met his lifelong companion, Chester Kallman. In America, Auden was able to leave behind the conflict he had felt between his privileged background and his political sympathies. He took out US citizenship in 1946.
In 1941 he became assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he remained for a year, moving on to teach at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania from 1942-5. He continued to publish poetry including The Age of Anxiety (1947) for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He collaborated with Kallman on the libretto for The Rake's Progress (1951).
Although living in America, he continued links with Christ Church College, Oxford, who made him an honorary fellow, and in 1972, he returned to live there. This return was an unhappy experience. Oxford was not the same as it had been in the 50s. Auden's drinking and scatalogical remarks were not appreciated. He was ill and miserable.
He went to Austria in the summer of 1972, as he had done every year since 1948. In September, just hours before he was due to return to Oxford, he died in in his sleep of heart failure.


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