Reader's Encyclopedia

Auden, W[ystan] H[ugh] (1907-1973)

English poet and dramatist. Regarded as one of the major poets of the 20th century, he wrote his most influential work during the 1930s, when he was the best known of the group of British left-wing writers that included the poets C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender and the dramatist and novelist Christopher Isherwood. Auden served in the Spanish Civil War, and a number of his most famous lyrics came out of that experience. His early work reveals his belief that society could be cured of its political and economic diseases by socialism, and of its psychological diseases by psychoanalysis. However, during World War II, Christianity became Auden's central preoccupation, and the influence of Marx and Freud gave way to that of Kierkegaard and the modern Protestant theologians. The poem New Year Letter (1941; U.S., The Double Man) is Auden's own analysis of his development and his changing views. He edited and rewrote subsequent reprints of his poetry in order to omit what no longer suited his poetic, political, and religious ideas.

Auden's work is marked by wit and expert use of elaborate verse forms, but he also wrote in the popular music - hall tradition. His chief early works are Poems (1930), The Orators (1932), Look, Stranger! (1936; U.S., On This Island, 1937), and Another Time (1940). For the Group Theatre, he wrote several experimental Marxist plays: The Dance of Death (1933) and, with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6, and On the Frontier (1938). He collaborated with Louis Mac Neice on the verse and prose work Letters from Iceland (1937) and with Isherwood on Journey to a War (1939), about the war between Japan and China. The work of Auden's later period includes The Quest (1941), a sonnet sequence; For the Time Being (1944), a "Christmas oratorio" ; The Sea and the Mirror (1944), a "commentary" on The Tempest; and The Age of Anxiety. Nones (1951), The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), and City Without Walls (1969) are later collections of poems. Auden collaborated with Chester Kallman on the libretto of Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress (1951). The Enchafed Flood (1950) and The Dyer's Hand (1962) are collections of critical essays. He edited the Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938) and selections from Kierkegaard (1952). Auden immigrated to the U.S. in 1939 and became an American citizen, but returned to Europe near the end of his life. A revised edition of his Selected Poems appeared in 1979.