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Auden, W. H. (1907-1973)  

Described by Edward Mendelson as "the most inclusive poet of the twentieth century, its most technically skilled, and its most truthful," Auden is the first major poet to incorporate modern psychological insights and paradigms as a natural element of his work and thought. The foremost religious poet of his age, the most variously learned, and the one most preoccupied with existentialism, Auden is also an important love poet.

Although particularly concerned with the relationship of Eros and Agape and characteristically practicing a "poetry of reticence," Auden celebrates erotic love as a significant element in his geography of the heart.

Born into an upper middle-class professional family in York in 1907 and educated at Christ Church College, Oxford, from which he received his B.A. in 1928, Wystan Hugh Auden was the third son of a physician and a nurse, from whom he imbibed scientific, religious, and musical interests and a love of the Norse sagas. Following his graduation, he spent a year in Berlin, where he enjoyed the city's homosexual demimonde and absorbed German culture. He returned to teach in public schools in Scotland and England from 1930 to 1935.

In 1938, he married Erika Mann, daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann, in order to enable her to obtain a British visa and escape Nazi Germany; the marriage was not consummated. In January 1939, disillusioned with the left-wing politics they had embraced, Auden and his friend and frequent collaborator, Christopher Isherwood, emigrated to the United States.

Settling in New York City, Auden soon fell in love with a precocious eighteen-year-old from Brooklyn, Chester Kallman, with whom he maintained a relationship for the rest of his life, sharing apartments in New York and, later, summer residences in first Ischia and then Austria. Auden died in Vienna on September 29, 1973.

Auden dominated the British literary scene of the 1930s, quickly emerging as the leading voice of his generation. With the publication of The Orators (1932) and the enlarged edition of Poems (1933), Auden became, by his mid-twenties, firmly established as an important literary presence, the leader of the "Auden Gang" that included Isherwood, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice.

Auden's early poetry breathed an air of revolutionary freshness. In language at once exotic and earthy, alternately banal and elegant, colloquial yet faintly archaic, Auden's verse diagnosed psychic disturbances with an extraordinary resonance. Although most of his early poems have their origins in his personal anxieties, especially those related to his homosexuality and his search for psychic healing, they seemed to voice the fears and uncertainties of his entire generation.

Auden may have initially regarded his gayness as a psychic wound, but he came to see it as a liberating force. In the prose poem "Letter to a Wound" (1932), he writes,

Thanks to you, I have come to see a profound significance in relations I never dreamt of considering before, an old lady's affection for a small dog, the Waterhouses and their retriever, the curious bond between Offal and Snig, the partners in the hardware shop on the front. Even the close-ups in the films no longer disgust nor amuse me. On the contrary, they sometimes make me cry; knowing you has made me understand.

Auden's acceptance of his gayness thus leads him to new insight into the universal impulse to love and enlarges his understanding of all kinds of relationships. At the same time, however, Auden is acutely aware of the limitations of eroticism.

His earliest love poems complain of his lack of sexual success, but his poems from the later 1930s such as "May with its light behaving" lament an emotional isolation that accompanies physical intimacy. In the poem beginning "Easily, my dear, you move," erotic love and feverish political activity are both depicted as expressions of vanity and the desire for power. Auden finally reaches the conclusion that Eros and Agape are interdependent.

Auden's recognition of the interdependence of Eros and Agape is at the heart of perhaps the greatest love poem of the century, the grave and tender "Lullaby" (["Lay your sleeping head"] 1937), which moves so nimbly and with such grace among abstractions evoked so subtly that it may well be regarded as the premiere example of the poet's intellectual lyricism. The luminous moment of fulfillment that the poem celebrates is placed in a context of mutability and decay that poignantly underlines the fragility of a love endangered from within by guilt, promiscuity, and betrayal, and from without by the "pedantic boring cry" of "fashionable madmen."

Auden's marriage to Kallman was not to prove entirely happy (primarily due to Kallman's promiscuity), but it provided the poet with loving companionship and helped seal the permanence of his self-exile. Auden's first flush of passion for Kallman immediately inspired several poems of fulfilled erotic love, including "The Prophets," "Like a Vocation," "The Riddle," "Law Like Love," and "Heavy Date," in which he tells his lover, "I have / Found myself in you."

Kallman introduced Auden to opera, an interest that would shape the curve of his career. The partners collaborated on several original libretti, including one for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951), and on translating others.

Auden movingly celebrates his relationship with Kallman in "The Common Life" (1965), which tellingly declares that "every home should be a fortress." Also among Auden's late poems is "Glad," a light but deeply felt account of his relationship with a male hustler, "for a decade now / My bed-visitor, / An unexpected blessing / In a lucky life."

In "Since," a poem probably inspired by his relationship with Kallman, Auden suddenly remembers an August noon thirty years ago and "You as then you were." He juxtaposes the memory of his youthful love-making with an account of the failures of Eros and Agape in the world since then and finds sustenance in the memory: "round your image / there is no fog, and the Earth / can still astonish."

In a remarkable conclusion that bravely faces the issue of aging with unsentimental wit, he concludes, "I at least can learn / to live with obesity / and a little fame." A stunning achievement, "Since" validates the vision of Eros as a life-sustaining experience that can compensate at least in part even for the inevitable failures of Agape.

Auden's homosexuality is also expressed throughout his canon in the camp wit that discerns defensive fun in serious fear, as in the limerick "The Aesthetic Point of View" (1960). Moreover, the humorous self-revelations of the "Shorts" (1960), the "Marginalia" (1969), or "Profile" (1969), as well as the bawdy verse--such as "A Day for a Lay"--circulated among friends, helped establish for Auden a persona that has been particularly influential on younger gay poets, such as James Merrill, Richard Howard, and Howard Moss. In Merrill's series of adventures with the Ouija board, for example, Auden is a ghostly presence, the embodiment of a homosexual artistic sensibility.

Claude J. Summers


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W. H. Auden (right) with Christopher Isherwood.
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Callan, Edward. Auden: A Carnival of Intellect. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Carpenter, Humphrey. W.H. Auden: A Biography. London: Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Farnin, Dorothy J. Auden in Love. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. New York: Viking, 1981.

Spender, Stephen, ed. W.H. Auden: A Tribute. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Summers, Claude J. "American Auden." Columbia History of American Poetry. Jay Parini, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

_____. "'And the Earth Can Still Astonish': W.H. Auden and the Landscape of Eros." The Windless Orchard 32 (1978): 27-36.

Wright, George T. W.H. Auden. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Auden, W. H.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 2, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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