Wystan Hugh Auden was one of the most influential English poets of the twentieth century.
He was born in York, England, in 1907 to George and Constance Bicknell Auden. His father was a doctor and his mother a nurse. From his childhood, Auden was fascinated with Norse mythology and science, two topics which would later feature heavily in his writing. He enrolled in St. Edmund's School in Surrey in 1915 at the age of eight.
Upon graduation, he went on to Gresham's School where he began to question the tenants of his Ango-Catholic upbringing. He enrolled at Oxford University in 1925 where he soon changed his Science degree to English. He had published his first poem the preceding year in Public School Verse, and his time at Oxford deepened his resolve to make poetry his career. The first collection of his poetry was published in 1928 by his devotees at Oxford, C. Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice.
That same year Auden graduated from Oxford and moved to Berlin, where he spent a year before returning to Britain. In subsequent years, his writings reflected the German poetry and drama he had studied while in Germany; he was particularly influenced by Bertold Brecht.
Auden later outlines four periods of his career in Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 (published in 1966). The first period is from 1927 to 1932. During this time, he composed his first dramatic work, Paid on Both Sides (1930), a charade exhibiting a variety of his interests: Marxism, Icelandic mythology, and Freudian psychoanalysis.
The second period is from 1933 to 1938. During this period, Auden's writing becomes increasingly socialist in tone. He wrote three plays with Christopher Isherwood, a boyhood friend who had become Auden's romantic partner. The most important of these dramas is The Ascent of F6 (1936), for which Auden invited the famed composer Benjamin Britten to write the accompanying music. Another important work from the same year is Look, Stranger! (1936). Auden dedicated it to Erika Mann, whom he had recently married to allow her a British passport. She was the daughter of the German author, Thomas Mann.
The third period of Auden's literary career spans from 1939 to 1946. At the beginning of this period, in January 1939, Auden moved to the United States with Christopher Isherwood. He soon became a member of the Anglican church, rejoining the faith he had abandoned as a schoolboy.
Christianity would also henceforth be a major theme in his writing, especially in his long poems from the 1940s. The collection Another Time appeared in 1940, contained the well-known poems Musée des beaux arts and September 1, 1939.
His most important long poems from this period include the Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being (1944), The Sea and the Mirror (1944), and The Age of Anxiety (1947). Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for the latter work.
Auden's fourth period stretched from 1948 through the end of his life in 1973. Important poetry collections of this period include The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), About the House (1965), and City Without Walls (1969). He also coauthored a number of works with Chester Kallman, with whom Auden lived from 1953 until 1973. Their joint work includes the opera librettos, The Rake's Progress (1951) for Igor Stravinsky, and Love's Labour's Lost (1961) for Nicolas Nabakov.
During the final two decades of his life, Auden divided his time between homes in New York and in Europe. At the end of the summer in 1973, Auden left his home in Kirchstetten, Austria to travel to Oxford, England for the winter. He spent the night en route in Vienna, where he died at age 66. His body was returned to Kirchstetten for burial.
Auden was the recipient of many notable awards, including the Bollingen Prize (1953) and the National Book Award (1956).