The poet W H Auden was born in York in 1907, but was brought up in Birmingham. His mother had trained as a nurse, and his father was a GP turned public health academic. While at Gresham’s School, he was out for a walk with his friend, the painter Robert Medley, when he realised he should become a poet; the precise moment is recounted in ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1936).
As a student at Christ Church, Oxford his writing style came heavily under the influence of the modernist poet and editor T S Eliot, and in 1927 Auden submitted poems to Eliot for consideration. Auden had still to find his own voice, and Eliot initially turned him down but told him that he would be interested in following his progress. Eliot eventually published Auden’s Poems in 1930. According to his editor and biographer Edward Mendelson, Auden went on to become ‘the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century’ (Preface to Selected Poems, 1979).
After graduating from Oxford with third class honours, Auden spent a year living in Berlin, where he wrote the dramatic sketch ‘Paid on Both Sides: a Charade’, which Eliot accepted for The Criterion. Eliot then accepted Auden’s first regularly published book Poems for publication by Faber and Faber in 1930. In 1936 Auden wrote the play The Ascent of F6, in collaboration with his long-term friend Christopher Isherwood, with music composed by Benjamin Britten. Letters from Iceland (1937) is a hybrid book, produced in collaboration with Louis MacNeice. The poem ‘Spain, 1937’ – which he later rejected as ‘dishonest’ – draws on experiences of the Spanish Civil War. ‘September 1, 1939’ marks the outbreak of the Second World War, the duration of which Auden spent in America. A particular style of Auden’s which Mendelson calls ‘the task of the present moment’ produced lyrics such as ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ (1948) and the experiment in gay pornography The Platonic Blow (1948). Despite his homosexuality, in 1935, he married the daughter of the writer Thomas Mann, Erika, providing her with a British replacement for the passport the Nazis were about to revoke. In 1939, he moved with Isherwood to the USA, where he met and fell in love with Chester Simon Kallman.
Auden defined poetry as ‘memorable speech’ (The Poet’s Tongue (1935)), and many of his lines have passed into common culture, from ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ (1939)) to the description of the 1930s as ‘a low dishonest decade’ (‘September 1, 1939’). He was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1955, a unique position in which you are appointed by an election in which all MA students can vote; his lectures are collected in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Auden died in Vienna in 1973.
Further information about the life of W H Auden can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.