W. H. Auden (1907-1973), the son of a York doctor, was educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, and at Oxford. On leaving the university, he spent some time in Germany before taking up a teaching post in a preparatory school. During the Spanish Civil War he served with the Republican forces in non-combatant capacities, and his interest in Spanish politics was reflected in one of his finest works—his poem ‘Spain’. He left England for America in 1938, and thereafter spent most of his time in that country, devoting himself mainly to writing. In 1937 he won the King’s Medal for Poetry.
As the leader of the poets of the thirties, Auden is of considerable importance. He came under the influence of Hopkins and Eliot, and, like the latter, he was deeply aware of the hollowness of the disintegrating post-War civilization. But, unlike Eliot, Auden found his solution to the world’s problems in left-wing political ideologies. A spokesman of the masses, whom he studied with warm understanding and deep insight, Auden showed clearly in his early poetry a faith in violent social revolution as a means to a better order. His later poems, however, revealed a new note of mysticism in his approach to human problems. He attempted, with considerable success, to prevent poetry from becoming exclusively ‘highbrow,’ and found his subjects among the everyday, often sordid, realities of a diseased social order. Other modern influences strongly felt in his poetry were those of the psychologists, particularly of Freud, and Auden was profoundly conscious of sex and its importance in human life. His approach to life was that of the intelligent intellectual, and he followed Eliot in his partiality for the poetry of the metaphysical school. It is, therefore, of particular interest to find that much of his best work was in his exquisite and often movingly tender lyrics, where he was least concerned with his sociological theories.
Technically Auden was an artist of great virtuosity, a ceaseless experimenter in verse form, with a fine ear for the rhythm and music of words. Stephen Spender, himself no mean practitioner, described him as the most accomplished technician writing poetry in English. Essentially modern in tone, he had a wide variety of styles—often he wrote with a noisy jazziness and gaiety, often in a cynically satirical vein, and on occasion he could be slangily ‘tough.’ But usually he showed a delight in elliptical thought and closely packed imagery, and, if his proletarianism sometimes led him into flaws of taste, it also led him to exploit more fully than any of his predecessors the riches and vigour of everyday idiom and vocabulary.
With Christopher Isherwood (1904) Auden collaborated in a travel book on China, Journey to a War (1939), and in three plays, which, though sociological in aim, were full of entertainment—The Dog beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F.6.(1936), and On the Frontier (1938).
His poetry is to be found in Poems (1930), The Orators (1932), Look, Stranger (1936), Another Time (1940), New Year Letter (1941), For the Time Being (1945), The Age of Anxiety (1948), Collected Shorter Poems (1930-1944) (1950).
His two anthologies, The Poet’s Tongue (1935)-with John Garrett –and The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938), were deservedly well known, though his selection Tennyson (1946) aroused much unfavourable comment.