Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England in 1907. He read English literature at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1940-41 he lived in Brooklyn Heights and later on St. Marks Place, Manhattan. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946. In addition to poems, he wrote plays, film scripts, opera libretti, and non-fiction. He died in 1973, in Vienna, and is buried in Austria.
Auden is best known for his social and political poems, as exemplified by “Funeral Blues” and “September 1, 1939,” the date that Germany invaded Poland at the start of World War II. These poems had an urgency to them and a stentorian beat that William Carlos Williams and other modernists derided, they being more concerned with making statements about poetry than writing poems that might live in the heart and mind of the reader.
Auden will ever be discussed in the company of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats—three English language poets with double initials for first names. Who was the greatest of the three? Hard to say. Auden was closer to Yeats in form; the latter, I think, wrote more canonical poems. Eliot was a less disciplined writer but was as famous as any 20th Century poet, on both sides of the Atlantic, and highly influential with his light mocking tone.
My freshman English professor brought Auden’s playfulness as a poet to my attention, which has stayed with me. Shortly before Auden died, I heard him read at a college north of Toronto, to a packed house. He wore a coat and tie and spoke in a gravely voice. He had the most deeply wrinkled face of any man I had seen, which he had previously joked about as resembling “a wedding cake left out in the rain.” He said: “John Milton never stayed in a Hilton Hotel, which was just as well.”
Auden regained the public ear 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 September 11, 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.
Below is the final section of my poem “On the Passing of W. H. Auden,” modeled on Auden’s tribute to Yeats, which is included in my Selected Poems – 1967 – 2007. The critic James Matthew Wilson wrote of it: “I think the last section doesn't quite escape the captivity of pastiche -- though it is lovely pastiche.”
Note, a modern master dies.
Now a eulogy applies.
Citizen of sound and sense,
Honor him without pretense.
Careful what to celebrate,
When to beat the gong of fate;
Do not clamor sympathy,
Stir up strings and timpani.
Where he lived there is a place,
Small yet peopled with a race
Who still trust and disagree
On roots; there his tomb shall be.
In the larger social sphere
Compliments will reappear.
Decades he named wry and deft
Will be reviewed right and left.
Putting pen to life and news,
Letting them inscribe his views,
Pleasing time and favor well,
His gift guessed where it would dwell.
In the greater poet’s keep,
Lower all the wrinkles deep
Near the vessel he once praised;
Empty now, the work is raised.
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