English Literature
WH Auden

WH Auden

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The Life and Legacy of W. H. Auden: A Revolutionary Poet

Throughout the 20th century, W. H. Auden boldly left his mark on British and American poetry, making him a highly influential figure. His impact was not only seen in the evolution of form and style, but also in his role as a prominent LGBT poet, solidifying his place in literary history.

Early Beginnings

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York in 1907, the youngest of three sons to a physician and a missionary nurse. While his family was not part of the nobility, they were minor gentry with strong ties to the Church of England and Roman Catholic traditions. Auden's passion for literature was ignited at the age of 13 when he attended Gresham's School in Norfolk. He later pursued English Literature at Oxford University's Christ Church College, where the renowned author J.R.R. Tolkien introduced him to Old English texts.

During his time at Oxford, Auden formed close friendships with fellow writers and poets such as Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis, collectively known as the Auden Group or MacSpaunday by the press. It was also during this time that he formed a significant bond with writer Christopher Isherwood, leading to a sporadic sexual relationship and collaborations on several plays.

Adulthood and Adventures

After graduating from Oxford, Auden ventured to Berlin, where his poems were privately published by his friend Stephen Spender. This collection, titled "Poems", was later commercially published by T.S. Eliot for Faber & Faber. He then worked as a schoolteacher for five years before marrying Erika Mann, a German novelist, in 1935. This marriage was a strategic move to help Mann escape from the Nazis' grasp.

From 1935 to 1939, Auden lectured and wrote essays while embarking on travels across Europe and Asia with other writers. His journeys to Iceland, China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and Spain during the Spanish Civil War greatly influenced his political ideologies and writing style. He also formed a lifelong partnership with Chester Kalman, dedicating two of his poetry collections to them.

Life in America

In 1939, Auden and Isherwood relocated to New York, residing in the renowned February House with other writers. It was during this time that Auden rekindled his faith and joined the Episcopal Church. In 1940, he published his poetry collection "Another Time" and spent most of World War II teaching instead of fighting due to medical reasons that caused him to be dismissed from the US army.

After the war, Auden worked for the US Strategic Bombing Survey, giving him first-hand exposure to the atrocities of war once again. This experience, along with his visits to other war-torn countries, heavily influenced his writing in the following years. In 1956, he accepted a position at Oxford University, where he gave three lectures a year while dividing his time between New York and Europe.

The End of a Legacy

In his later years, Auden resided in a cottage offered by Oxford University during the winter and spent summers in New York. In 1972, he passed away at the Hotel Altenburger in Austria at the age of 66, passing away due to congestive heart failure.

Notable Works

W. H. Auden's most renowned poems include "Musée des beaux Arts" and "Funeral Blues." "Musée des beaux Arts" was inspired by his visit to Belgium in 1938 and was published as part of his 1940 poetry collection.

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns awayQuite leisurely from the disaster;"

These iconic lines from "Musée des beaux Arts" showcase Auden's distinctive style and his ability to capture the complexities of life in his writing.

Themes in the Poetry of W. H. Auden

While in Belgium, Auden found inspiration in Pieter Brugel the Elder's painting, 'The Fall of Icarus'. This ekphrastic poem portrays the mythical fall of Icarus from Greek mythology and serves as a commentary on the theme of art. However, it is crucial to note that Auden's experiences in Spain and China also heavily influenced his writing. As he witnessed violence and desensitization towards it, his perspective on death and suffering shifted, portrayed in his work.

In his famous poem, 'Funeral Blues' (1936), Auden expresses the speaker's grief through traditional funeral instructions, pleading for the world and time to pause and mourn alongside them.

The Rise of W.H. Auden's Poetry and its Impact

In 1994, W.H. Auden's poetry received widespread recognition after it was featured in the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'. Originally written as a satirical piece on mourning, it was later rewritten in a more sincere tone for cabaret singer Hedli Anderson in 1938. This revised version was then published in 1940 in the collection 'Another Time'.

Known for his poignant exploration of themes such as love, death, and war, Auden's poetry stands out for its fusion of these often contrasting aspects. The hallmark of his writing lies in his ability to evoke emotions and thoughts through his skillful handling of these complex themes.

  • 'Funeral Blues' (1936)
  • My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
  • I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
  • 'Are you there?' (1963)
  • Each lover has some theory of his own
  • About the difference between the ache
  • Of being with his love, and being alone:
  • 'As I Walked One Evening' (1936)
  • I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
  • Till China and Africa meet,
  • 'Lullaby' (1937)
  • Nights of insult let you pass
  • Watched by every human love.

Death is another prominent theme in Auden's work, famously showcased in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994). Having lived through major wars, including the world wars, Auden's writing is heavily influenced by the impact of these conflicts. However, he subverts the traditional expectations associated with this theme, as seen in lines like "Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/For nothing now can ever come to any good" from 'Funeral Blues' (1936).

  • 'Musee des Beaux Arts'(1938)
  • ...the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
  • Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
  • had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
  • 'Ode V' (1932)
  • The pillar dug from the desert recorded the sack of the city.
  • All the agent said as he collapsed was, "Sorry! They got me!"

Wars and their aftermath are a recurring theme in Auden's poetry, often paired with death. His experiences in Spain and China allowed him to witness the causes and effects of war, resulting in a unique perspective that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Unlike other war poets who glorified conflict, Auden also delved into the systems of government that fueled these wars. He frequently alludes to ancient Greek and Roman history in his poems, bringing a political and social commentary to his writing.

  • 'September 1, 1939' (1939)
  • What all schoolchildren learn,
  • Those to whom evil is done
  • Do evil in return.
  • 'The Shield of Achilles' (1952)
  • A million eyes, a million boots in line,
  • Without expression, waiting for a sign.
  • 'In the Praise of Limestone' (1948)
  • Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
  • Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
  • Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step;

In conclusion, W.H. Auden's poetry remains relevant and impactful even today. Through his thought-provoking and socially-conscious works, he continues to inspire and influence readers worldwide. His unique perspective on themes of love, death, and war, shaped by his life experiences, sets him apart from other poets. His legacy lives on in the literary world, as his words continue to resonate with audiences.

Auden's legacy as one of the greatest poets of his time lives on, as his works are still studied and admired long after his passing.

The Poetic Mystery 'Funeral Blues'

In 1936, W.H. Auden wrote the poem 'Funeral Blues', which has become one of his most beloved pieces. Originally meant as a satirical take on grieving, the poem took on a whole new meaning when it was reworked for singer Hedli Anderson in 1938. The revised rendition, which is the version we know today, was officially published in 1940.

'Funeral Blues' explores the universal feeling of grief and captures the deep anguish and desperation of the speaker mourning the loss of a loved one. Auden's use of heartfelt and powerful language has struck a chord with readers for generations, cementing his reputation as a master poet.

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