November 17, 2017

The Four Stages of W. H. Auden's Writing Career

the four stages of w.h. auden's writing career: "We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know." -w.h.Auden

W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden)

Born: February 21, 1907 in York, Yorkshire, England
Died: September 29, 1973 in Vienna Austria

Writing Influences

In the late 1920's through the early 1930's, there was a (unaffiliated) group of liberal and left-wing English poets that set out to bring new techniques and attitudes to English poetry. The "group" consisted of Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and W. H. Auden.

Auden was influenced by: Wilfred Owen and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who work taught Auden how to use metrical and verbal techniques. Auden embraced the conversational and ironic tone of T. S. Eliot, and like Eliot he used it to scrutinize society's downward spiral. From Thomas Hardy, Auden learned metrical variety, irregular form, and how to fuse public and private perspectives into a cohesive whole. Auden admired W. B. Yeats for his ability to blend "serious reflective" poems with "personal and public interest," although Auden later recanted his admiration of Yeats' "grand aspirations and rhetoric."

At Oxford, Auden became familiar with the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, which was characterized by its use of "rhythms and long alliterative" lines. He was also influenced by the pop and folk culture that he encountered at English music halls, and American blues singers (2421).

The Four Stages of Auden's Writing

In Auden's Collected Shorter Poems, he states that his career can be divided up into four periods:


Auden's early work tries to elicit change by exposing England's decline culturally and economically through verse that is well-crafted and cheeky; he uses the teachings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx to back-up his claims.

The poems are uneven and often obscure, pulled in contrary directions by the subjective impulse to fantasy, the mythic and unconscious, and the objective impulse to a diagnosis of the ills of society and the psychological and moral defects of the individuals who constitute it. Though the social and political implications of the poetry attracted most attention, the psychological aspect is primary. The notion of poetry as a kind of therapy, performing a function somehow analogous to the psychoanalytical, remains fundamental in Auden (Spears).

Selected Works from 1927-32
Paid on Both Sides (1928)
The Letter
The Secret Agent
No Change of Place
Let History Be My Judge
A Free One
Family Ghosts
On Sunday Walks
This Lunar Beauty
Have a Good Time
The Witness


Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (right) photographed by Carl Van Vechten, February 6, 1939
Isherwood & Auden (1939)
As Auden matured so did his writing, he gradually began to simplify his message through imagery and syntax. His poetic voice took on an idealistic yet unsentimental tone. Poems, such as Spain and September 1, 1939 are great examples of his idealistic ideas about being able to elicit change in culture and politics; Auden later removed these poems from his catalog, because he no longer believed that they held any merit.

Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate. (From Auden's Essay Writing)

At this time, Auden was an outspoken champion of the left-wing politics, which supports:
  • Social Welfare Programs (ie. food stamps, unemployment benefits, homeless shelters, etc.
  • The separation of church and state.
  • Charging the wealthiest members of society higher taxes, in order to fund the social welfare programs.
  • Environmentalism and other green initiatives.
  • Labor (or trade) unions and regulating industry.
  • Equality
Continuing the analysis of the evils of capitalist society, he also warned of the rise of totalitarianism (Spears).

1936 Auden married Erika Mann, whose father, Thomas Mann, was a German novelist; the sole purpose of the marriage was to enable Erika to get a British passport. Auden traveled with Christopher Isherwood to China, crossing the United States to and from China.

1937 Auden visited Spain briefly, which inspired his poem Spain, and also marks the beginning of his disillusionment with left-wing politics and return to Christianity.

Selected Works from 1933-8
Letter to Lord Byron (1936)
A Summer Night
Through the Looking Glass
A Misunderstanding
A Bride in the 30's
On This Island
As I Walked Out One Evening
Journey to Iceland
James Honeyman
As He is
Brussels in Winter
Musée des Beaux Arts
A. E. Houseman
Epitaph on a Tyrant
Sonnets from China


Auden continued to revamp his writing style through WWII (1939-45); his writing voice became increasingly matter-of-fact, mocking, and conversational (ie. more like everyday speech). He was a master at entwining popular speech into the "technical formality" of traditional verse. "He daringly mixed the grave and the flippant, vivid detail and allegorical abstraction. He always experimented in ways of bringing together high artifice and colloquial tone (2421)."

During this time, Auden and Isherwood both settled in the United States, and Auden became an American citizen. This move exposed Auden to the American Blues singers that would go on to influence his writing style.

The beliefs and attitudes that are basic to all of Auden’s work after 1940 are defined in three long poems: religious in the Christmas oratorio For the Time Being (1944); aesthetic in the same volume’s Sea and the Mirror (a quasi-dramatic “commentary” on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest); and social-psychological in The Age of Anxiety (1947), the “baroque eclogue” that won Auden the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 (Spears).

Selected Works from 1939-47
For the Time Being
The Sea and the Mirror
The Age of Anxiety
In Memory of W. B. Yeats
Voltaire at Ferney
The Dark Years
September 1, 1939
The Riddle
The Prophets
Law Like Love
In Memory of Sigmund Freud
The Quest
At the Grave of Henry James
Nursery Rhyme


Auden maintained his incredible technical skill for versification throughout his writing career. The last phase of his writing career, brought us an even more personal tone and informal attitude. He explored new verse forms, including: sestina, sonnet, ballad, canzone, syllabic, haiku, the blues, and limerick. His distrust of the role of "the prophetic poet," caused him to explore the more mundane topics of everyday life.

Beginning in 1948, Auden would leave the United States to spend April through October in Europe. From 1948 to 1957, Auden would spend his summers on the Italian Island of Ischia. After 1957, he would spend his summers at his farmhouse in Kirchstetten, Austria.

In 1972, Auden began spending his winter months in Oxford as an honorary fellow at Christ Church College; he also hoped that the university community would help him to combat his loneliness.

With Chester Kallman, an American poet and close friend who lived with him for more than 20 years, he rehabilitated the art of the opera libretto. Their best-known collaborations are The Rake’s Progress (1951), for Igor Stravinsky; Elegy for Young Lovers(1961) and The Bassarids (1966), for Hans Werner Henze; and Love’s Labour’s Lost for Nicolas Nabokov. They also edited An Elizabethan Song Book (1956) (Spears).

Selected Works from 1948-73
Ode to Gaea
The More Loving One
The History of Science
There Will Be No Peace
First Things First
The Old Man's Road
The History of Truth

*One thing that you should take into consideration when reading any of Auden's poetry is that he was known to go back and heavily revise his poems.

Awards and Honors

The Pulitzer Prize Winner in Poetry (1948): The Age of Anxiety, by W. H. Auden (Random)-"For the best volume of verse published during the year by an American author, $500 (The Pulitzer Prizes)."

The Bollingen Prize For Poetry (1953) At Yale University: For In Memory of W. B. Yeats

The National Book Award in Poetry: For The Shield of Achilles

St. Louis Literary Award (1970)

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation: Awarded a Fellowship for Poetry in the US and Canada in 1942.

American Academy of Arts and Letters: The Award of Merit Medal in Poetry in 1945, and the Gold Medal in Poetry in 1968.

What is your favorite poem written by Auden?


Literature and Web-Based Citations

Stallworthy, Jon, and Jahan Ramazani, editors. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8th edition. Norton, 2006. Specifically pages 2421 to 2422.

Spears, Monroe K. "W. H. Auden." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc, 18 Aug. 2017, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Stasyan117. "Flag Map of England.svg." Wikimedia Commons, 14 Nov. 2017,

The Pulitzer Prizes. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

The Bolligen Prize For Poetry: At Yale University. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

The National Book Award Presented by the Nation Book Foundation. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Saint Louis University. Library Associates Literary Award. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Image Citations

Isherwood and Auden
Carl Van Vechten. "Isherwood and Auden by Carl van Vechten, 1939." Wikimedia Commons, 14 Nov. 2017,,_1939.jpg.