Hugh Wystan Auden (1907-1973)

Poet

Plaque in Bootham, York YO30 7XZ

Wystan Hugh Auden, one of the greatest 20th-century British writers, was born in York on 21 February 1907. He was the son of George Augustus Auden and Constance Rosalie Auden (née Bicknell) who lived at 54 Bootham. His father was a physician and his mother trained, but did not practise, as a nurse. He had two older brothers: George Bernard, a farmer, and John Bicknell, a geologist. His grandfathers were both Church of England clergymen and he was brought up an Anglo-Catholic which he claimed influenced his later poetry. In 1908 the family moved to Solihull where his father had become the School Medical Officer and later a Professor of Public Health. Thus Auden’s residence in York was short-lived. He attended boarding school from eight years old and expected to be a mining engineer until he was about 15. However, he was attracted by words at an early age.

Auden’s birthplace in Bootham, York

Early influences

Auden went to Christ Church, Oxford graduating in 1928. He claimed to be of Icelandic descent and was fascinated with Old Norse sagas and Icelandic legends which is reflected in his work. He also claimed to be influenced by the poetry of Robert Frost, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy. At Oxford he made lifelong friends with Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. His first collection of poetry, Poems, was published in 1930 and this established him as a leading voice of his generation.

Output and themes

His verse form is varied and noted for its stylistic and technical achievement, drawing on popular culture, vernacular speech, a range of art and literary forms, and social, political and scientific sources. Themes range from love, politics, citizenship, the relationship between humans and nature to religion. In addition to poetry, he wrote plays, opera librettos, essays and edited widely. He also worked on texts for documentary films, one of his best known ones in the UK being Night Mail. Many British and American poets were inspired by his work and he continued to be influential after his death. Poems that have became generally popular include Funeral Blues and Musée des Beaux Arts.

Auden fought in the Spanish Civil War and travelled widely. In 1939 he moved to the US and met his lover, Chester Kallman. He moved on from his earlier socialism and his admiration for Freudian psychoanalysis to a more overt preoccupation with modern protestant theology. His latter years were spent between the US and Vienna where he died on 29 September 1973.

John Bicknell Auden – not mentioned on the plaque

John Bicknell Auden (1903-91), W.H. Auden’s brother, was an English geologist and explorer and an official with the World Health Organisation (WHO). From 1926 until the 1950s he worked with the Geological Survey of India. Auden’s Col, a high-altitude mountain pass in the Himalayas, is named after him. He discovered the pass in 1935 and crossed it for the first time in 1939-40. He published more than 30 academic articles.

His exploration and mapping – with three other climbers – of the high Karakoram region of the Himalayas was the subject of Eric Shipton’s book Blank on the Map (1938). In 1940 he was elected president of the Geological Institute of Presidency College, Calcutta. He was engaged in investigating all the major dam sites, hydro-electric projects, irrigation works and water supply schemes of India.

In 1960 he joined the WHO where he worked until 1970. After retiring he lived in London where he served for two years as vice-president of the Gelogical Society of London. He was married twice, first to Margaret Marshall – the marriage ended in divorce – then, in 1940, to Sheila Bonnerjee, a granddaughter of Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, first president and founder of the Indian National Congress. They had two daughters, one of whom was one of the first female surgeons in London and for whom W.H. Auden wrote a poem on her marriage.

References

Stephen Spender ed., W.H. Auden: A Tribute (London, 1975)

Humphrey Carpenter, W.H. Auden: A Biography (London, 1981)

Richard Davenport-Hines, Auden (London, 1996)

© Sue Grace