W.H. Auden

W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden (from NNDB)

Auden’s Life and Influence

by Jessica Rodman

Wystan Hugh Auden was one of the greatest twentieth century poets. He was born February 21st, 1907, in York, England, to George and Constance Auden. His father was a psychologist and his mother was a devoted Angelican. Auden began his education at St. Edmunds Preparatory School and at age thirteen continued on to Gresham’s School. He then attended Oxford Univeristy where he and a few of his fellow undergraduates formed a group called the “Auden Generation” who were influenced by Modernism and rejected tradition poetic forms. At Oxford, Auden studied English despite his large interest in science. In 1928 he graduated with a third class degree in English and moved to Berlin for year. In 1930, after returning to England, he began teaching for five years. His first published work was a collection entitled, Poems, which were published in 1930. Since his first publication he became known for his various styles of verse form and the exemplary leftist voice of his young generation. His poetry often mimicked the writing styles of other famous writers including W. B. Yeats, Dickinson, Henry James and T.S Elliot. Auden traveled to Germany, Iceland and China with friends and worked with them to write Letters from Iceland (1937) and Journey to a War (1939). In 1939 Auden left England and moved to the United States. Briefly after arriving to the United States, Irish poet W. B. Yeats died, which prompted Auden to write his great elegy, “In Memory of W.B Yeats.” After his move to America, Auden’s beliefs shifted as he no longer concentrated on politics and the significance of socialism. In America, he was introduced to Christianity and soon became interested in morality and religion. From 1956- 1961 Auden worked at Oxford Univeristy as a professor of poetry. Auden was the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 until 1973. He spent the second half of his life between homes in New York City and Austria. He had published over 20 collections of poetry during his lifetime and became best known for his wide range of style and technique in wriing. W. H. Auden died in Vienna, Austria, on September 23, 1973, due to a heart attack in his sleep.

Auden’s Poetry

“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

by Brian Reece

“In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden is both a tribute to the great poet William Butler Yeats and a representation of an internal conflict Auden experiences as he considers the repercussions of the death of this great figure. In it we see three distinctly marked sections. The first is written in solemn memory of Yeats’s life and in recognition of the fact that Yeats’s words have reached many. The imagery is cold and stark–“He disappeared in the dead of winter” opens the poem, and immediately the sense is of longing and of pain. Clearly, Auden feels these emotions at the loss of such a great writer, but by the middle of the section, Auden moves from Yeats to his poetry: “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” We see a new view of death–the immortality of poetry versus the mortality of the poet. But even more, we see his view that poetry can have an effect “in the guts of the living.” The second section seems to be Auden’s somber concession that poetry, in fact, does nothing for us except live on beyond us–poetry has no effect, but merely survives. This is clearly a contradiction of the first section. We see in the second section a comparatively disappointed view of poetry and perhaps of humanity as a whole. Interestingly enough, however, it is the shortest section. Perhaps, then, Auden meant this section to be an interruption of his thought–a falling back into the dark recesses of his mind where negativity prevails. This section, however, is placed between two much larger sections, both of which bring out a more positive side of poetry. The third section immediately contradicts the second, drawing on what he builds up in the first–in actuality, by surviving beyond the life of Yeats and by reaching so many people, the survival of his poetry can and does have an effect on others, specifically that of an educative role. Furthermore, the third section also provides its reader with a more direct connection with Yeats himself–the speaker of the poem speaks directly to Yeats: “Follow, poet.” If poetry does nothing more than survive, how can it provide us with this connection to the dead? Auden’s poetry reveals the mysterious ability of art to create immortality for the immortal–Yeats spirit lives on through his poetry. Though Yeats is dead, his poetry lives on and can still “teach the free man how to praise” (Abrams 2506-2508).

In Memory of W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats’s Grave (from U. of Texas)

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumors;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Earth, receive an honored guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


1. Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Edition. Vol. 2. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 2000. 2506-2508.
2. NNDB: http://www.nndb.com/people/037/000031941/>
3. U. of Texas: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~bump/E392M/cp/Yeatsbio.htm
4. W.H. Auden Biography (2007). Notable Biographies. http://www.notablebiographies.com/An-Ba/Auden-W-H.html
5. W.H Auden Biography (2006). Famous Poets and Poems. http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/whauden/biography