W. H. Auden:

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Born On The: 21st February 1907.
Died On The: 29th September 1973.
Birthplace: York, North Yorkshire.
Occupation(s): Poet and Author.
Zodiac: Born under the Star Sign PiscesPiscesWhat Star Sign are You?
Achievement(s): Around 400 poems, including 7 long poems, 2 of which were book length and more than 400 essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion and many other subjects.

Biography:

Wystan Hugh Auden was an Anglo American poet, who was born in England and became an American citizen; he was regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century; his work is noted for its stylistic and technical achievements, its engagement with moral and political issues and its variety of tone, form and content; the central themes of his poetry are love, politics & citizenship, religion & morals and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.

Auden was born in York, the third of three brothers; he traced his love of music and language partly to the church services of his childhood; he believed he was of Icelandic descent and his lifelong fascination with Icelandic legends and Old Norse sagas is visible throughout his work; he grew up in Birmingham in a professional middle class family and read English literature at Christ Church, Oxford; until he was 15 he expected to become a mining engineer, but his passion for words had already begun; he later wrote, "words so excite me that a pornographic story, for example, excites me sexually more than a living person can do".

His first published poems appeared in the school magazine in 1923; Auden later wrote a chapter on Gresham's for Graham Greene's The Old School: Essays by Divers Hands (1934).

In 1925 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, with a scholarship in biology, but he switched to English by his second year; friends he met at Oxford included Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender; these four were commonly though misleadingly identified in the 1930s as the 'Auden Group' for their shared, but not identical, left-wing views; Auden left Oxford in 1928 with a third-class degree.

Also in 1925 he established a close relationship with Christopher Isherwood and for the next few years Isherwood was his literary mentor to whom he sent poems for comments and criticism; Auden may have fallen in love with him and in the 1930s they maintained a sexual friendship in intervals between their relations with others and in 1935 to 1939 they collaborated on three plays and a travel book.

From his Oxford years onward, his friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely; in groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way; in more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome; he was punctual in his habits and obsessive about meeting deadlines.

In the autumn of 1928 Auden left Britain for nine months to live in Berlin, partly to rebel against English repressiveness and it was in Berlin, that he said, he first experienced the political and economic unrest that became one of his central subjects.

On returning to Britain in 1929, he worked briefly as a tutor and in 1930 he published his first book, Poems (1930), which was accepted by T. S. Eliot for Faber and Faber; the firm also published all his later books; in 1930 he began five years as a schoolmaster in boys' schools, with two years at the Larchfield Academy, in Helensburgh, Scotland and then three years at The Downs School, in the Malvern Hills, where he was a much loved teacher; at the Downs, in June 1933, he experienced what he later described as a "Vision of Agape," when, while sitting with three fellow teachers at the school, he suddenly found that he loved them for themselves, that their existence had infinite value for him; this experience, he said, later influenced his decision to return to the Anglican Church in 1940.

During these years, Auden's erotic interests focused, as he later said, on an idealised "Alter Ego" rather than on individual persons; his relations, and his unsuccessful courtships, tended to be unequal either in age or intelligence; his sexual relations were transient, although some evolved into long friendships; he contrasted these relations with what he later regarded as the "marriage", his word, of equals that he began with Chester Kallman in 1939, based on the unique individuality of both partners.

From 1935 until he left Britain early in 1939, Auden worked as freelance reviewer, essayist and lecturer, with the G.P.O. Film Unit, a documentary film making branch of the post office, headed by John Grierson; through his work for the Film Unit in 1935 he met and collaborated with Benjamin Britten, with whom he also worked on plays, song cycles and a libretto; Auden's plays in the 1930s were performed by the Group Theatre, in productions that he supervised to varying degrees.

In 1936 he spent three months in Iceland, where he gathered material for a travel book Letters from Iceland (1937), written in collaboration with Louis MacNeice; in 1937 he went to Spain intending to drive an ambulance for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, but was put to work broadcasting propaganda, a job he left in order to visit the front; his seven-week visit to Spain affected him deeply and his social views grew more complex as he found political realities to be more ambiguous and troubling than he had imagined.

Again attempting to combine reportage and art, he and Isherwood spent six months in 1938 visiting the Sino-Japanese War, working on their book Journey to a War (1939); on their way back to England they stayed briefly in New York and decided to move to the United States.

Many of his poems during the 1930s and afterward were inspired by unconsummated love and in the 1950s he summarised his emotional life in a famous couplet: "If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me", 'The More Loving One'. He had a gift for friendship and starting in the late 1930s, a strong wish for the stability of marriage; in a letter to his friend James Stern he called marriage "the only subject."

Throughout his life he performed charitable acts, sometimes in public, as in his marriage of convenience to Erika Mann in 1935 that gave her a British passport, with which to escape the Nazis; but, especially in later years, more often done in private and he was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed, as when his gift to his friend Dorothy Day for the Catholic Worker movement was reported on the front page of The New York Times in 1956.

Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York in January 1939, entering on temporary visas; their departure from Britain was later seen by many there as a betrayal and Auden's reputation suffered; in April 1939 Isherwood moved to California and he and Auden saw each other only intermittently in later years; around this time, Auden met the poet Chester Kallman, who became his lover for the next two years; Auden described their relation as a "marriage" that began with a cross country "honeymoon" journey; in 1941 Kallman ended their sexual relationship because he could not accept Auden's insistence on a mutual faithful relationship, but he and Auden remained companions for the rest of Auden's life, sharing houses and apartments from 1953 until Auden's death; Auden dedicated both editions of his collected poetry (1945/50 and 1966) to Isherwood and Kallman.

In 1940, he joined the Episcopal Church, returning to the Anglican Communion he had abandoned at 12; his reconversion was influenced partly by what he called the "sainthood" of Charles Williams, whom he had met in 1937, partly by reading Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr; his existential, this worldly Christianity became a central element in his life.

After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 Auden told the British embassy in Washington that he would return to the UK if needed, but was told that, among those his age (32), only qualified personnel were needed; in 1941 to 42 he taught English at the University of Michigan; he was called up to be drafted in the United States Army in August 1942, but was rejected on medical grounds; he had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1942 to 43, but did not use it, choosing instead to teach at Swarthmore College in 1942 to 45.

His visits to the Pennine landscape and its declining lead-mining industry figure in many of his poems; the remote decaying mining village of Rookhope was for him a 'sacred landscape', evoked in a late poem, 'Amor Loci'; his early poems, written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, alternated between telegraphic modern styles and fluent traditional ones, were written in an intense and dramatic tone, and established his reputation as a left-wing political poet and prophet; he became uncomfortable in this role in the later 1930s and abandoned it after he moved to the United States in 1939, where he became an American citizen in 1946.

His poems in the 1940s explored religious and ethical themes in a less dramatic manner than his earlier works, but still combined traditional forms and styles with new forms devised by Auden himself; in the 1950s and 1960s many of his poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions, and he took a particular interest in writing opera librettos, a form ideally suited to direct expression of strong feelings.

He was also a prolific writer of prose, essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological and religious subjects, and he worked at various times on documentary films, poetic plays and other forms of performance; throughout his career he was both controversial and influential; after his death, some of his poems, notably 'Funeral Blues' - ('Stop all the clocks') and 'September 1, 1939', became widely known through films, broadcasts and popular media.

In the summer of 1945, after the end of World War II in Europe, he was in Germany with the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey, studying the effects of Allied bombing on German morale, an experience that affected his postwar work as his visit to Spain had affected him earlier; on his return, he settled in Manhattan, working as a freelance writer, and as a lecturer at The New School for Social Research, and as a visiting professor at Bennington, Smith and other American colleges; in 1946 he became a naturalised citizen of the US.

His theology in his later years evolved from a highly inward and psychologically oriented Protestantism in the early 1940s to a more Roman Catholic-oriented interest in the significance of the body and in collective ritual in the later 1940s and 1950s, and finally to the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which rejected "childish" conceptions of God for an adult religion that focused on the significance of human suffering.

Auden began summering in Europe in 1948, first in Ischia, Italy, where he rented a house, then, starting 1958, in Kirchstetten, Austria where he bought a farmhouse, and shed tears of joy at owning a home for the first time.

In 1951, shortly before the two British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the USSR, Burgess attempted to phone Auden to arrange a vacation visit to Ischia that he had earlier discussed with Auden; Auden never returned the call and had no further contact with either spy, but a media frenzy ensued in which his name was mistakenly associated with their escape; the frenzy was repeated when the MI5 documents on the incident were released in 2007.

In 1956 to 61, Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University where he was required to give three lectures each year; this fairly light workload allowed him to continue to winter in New York, where he now lived on St. Mark's Place and to summer in Europe, spending only three weeks each year lecturing in Oxford; he now earned his income mostly by readings and lecture tours and by writing for The New Yorker and other magazines.

In 1972, he moved his winter home from New York to Oxford, where his old college, Christ Church, offered him a cottage, but he continued to summer in Austria; he died in Vienna in 1973 and was buried in Kirchstetten.

Auden published about four hundred poems, including seven long poems, two of them book-length; his poetry was encyclopaedic in scope and method, ranging in style from obscure 20th century modernism to the lucid traditional forms such as ballads and limericks, from doggerel through haiku and villanelles to a "Christmas Oratorio" and a baroque eclogue in Anglo Saxon meters; the tone and content of his poems ranged from pop song clichés to complex philosophical meditations, from the corns on his toes to atoms and stars, from contemporary crises to the evolution of society.

He also wrote more than four hundred essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion and many other subjects; he collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood and on opera libretti with Chester Kallman, worked with a group of artists and filmmakers on documentary films in the 1930s and with the New York Pro Musica early music group in the 1950s and 1960s; about collaboration he wrote in 1964, "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had.".

Auden controversially rewrote or discarded some of his most famous poems when he prepared his later collected editions; he wrote that he rejected poems that he found "boring" or "dishonest" in the sense that they expressed views that he had never held but had used only because he felt they would be rhetorically effective; his rejected poems include "Spain" and "September 1, 1939"; his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, argues in his introduction to Auden's Selected Poems that Auden's practice reflected his sense of the persuasive power of poetry and his reluctance to misuse it.

Auden's popularity and familiarity suddenly increased after his 'Funeral Blues', 'Stop all the clocks' was read aloud in the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994); subsequently, a pamphlet edition of ten of his poems, 'Tell Me the Truth About Love', sold more than 275,000 copies; after the 11th September 2001, his poem 'September 1, 1939' was widely circulated and frequently broadcast; public readings and broadcast tributes in the UK and US in 2007 marked his centenary year.

'Funeral Blues', 'Stop all the clocks':

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead,
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


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