Friendship Poems

W.H. Auden Biography

Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907 in York, England to George Augustus Auden, a physician and Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, a trained missionary nurse. He became known as W.H. Auden because he signed his works with that name rather than his birth name. Auden, the third of three boys, traced his love of music and language to the church services of his childhood.

In 1908, Auden and his family moved to Harborne, Birmingham for his father’s work. It was then that Auden’s lifelong psychoanalytic interests began inside his father’s library. From the age of eight, Auden attended boarding schools, returning home only for the holidays.

Auden’s first boarding school was St. Edmund’s School, Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who later became a famous novelist. In 1922, when he was thirteen, he attended Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where his friend Robert Medley suggested he might write poetry. Despite his passion for words, Auden believed that he was going to become a mining engineer until he turned fifteen years old. In 1923, Auden’s first published poems appeared in the school magazine.

Auden went to Christ Church, Oxford in 1925 with a scholarship in Biology, by his second year he had switched to studying English. He left Oxford with a third-class degree in 1928. During his education at Christ Church, Auden was re-introduced to Christopher Isherwood. Over the next few years Isherwood became Auden’s literary mentor; Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comments and criticism. From 1935 until 1939, they collaborated on three plays and a travel book.

In the fall of 1928, Auden left Britain for nine months, bound for Weimar Berlin. Part of the reason that Auden left Britain was to rebel against English repressiveness in a city where homosexuality was widely tolerated. When he returned to Britain in 1929, he worked briefly as a tutor. In 1930, he published his first book, Poems, which was accepted by T.S. Elliot for Faber and Faber; this firm also published all of his later books. After publishing his first book, Auden became a schoolmaster in boys’ schools until 1935.

From 1935 until he left Britain in 1939, Auden worked as a freelance reviewer, essayist and lecturer. He began working with the G.P.O. Film Unit, which was a documentary filmmaking branch of the post office. It was through this work that he met Benjamin Britten, whom he collaborated with on plays, song cycles and a libretto in 1935. During the 1930s, most of his poems were inspired by unconsummated love.

In January of 1939, Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York where they entered on temporary visas. Many people in Britain viewed their departure as a betrayal and Auden’s reputation in Britain suffered from it. Around April of 1939, after Isherwood moved to California, Auden met Chester Kallman, a poet. The two of them became lovers for the next two years. Although Kallman ended their sexual relationship in 1941, the two remained companions, sharing houses and apartments from 1953 until Auden’s death.

In 1941-42, Auden taught English at the University of Michigan. He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942, though he didn’t use it. Instead, he choose to teach at Swarthmore College from 1942-45. In 1945, Auden published an edition of his collected poetry and dedicated it to both Isherwood and Kallman. He later published a second edition of his collected poetry in 1966; it too was dedicated to Isherwood and Kallman.

In 1956-61, Auden was a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, where he was only required to give three lectures each year. This light workload allowed him to continue to winter in New York and to summer in Europe, where he spent three weeks lecturing in Oxford. In 1972, he moved his winter home from New York to Oxford, where his old college, Christ Church, offered him a cottage. He continued to summer in Austria. In 1973, Auden died in Vienna he was buried in Kirchstetten.

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