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Auden, W H

Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Author, Critic, Theatre.

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Working name of Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973), UK poet, playwright, librettist and critic; he was Oxford Professor of Poetry 1956-1961. His verse combined wide-ranging technical brilliance with an early fascination for modern Technology, especially that associated with mining and Transportation: aviation is sinisterly glamourized in "Journal of an Airman" (in The Orators, coll 1932) (see also Pax Aeronautica; Rex Warner). The play On the Frontier: A Melodrama in Two Acts (first performed October 1938 Cambridge Arts Theatre; 1938) with Christopher Isherwood is set against the outbreak of war between the Ruritania-like European countries of Ostnia and Westland. Auden's poems make infrequent but unembarrassed use of fantastic tropes, such as the sardonically implied Dystopia dominated by a Bureau of Statistics which celebrates the eponym of "The Unknown Citizen" (6 January 1940 The New Yorker; in Another Time coll 1940) for his exemplary because utterly average life as a model consumer. The long sequence "The Sea and the Mirror" (in For the Time Being, coll 1944) is a remarkable meditation on William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) in which all the speaking characters plus some theatre personnel give voice, each in their own verse form except for the supposed Monster Caliban, who orates in highly mannered prose recalling the finical later style of Henry James (1843-1916). "The Shield of Achilles" (October 1952 Poetry) effectively contrasts Homer's classical vision of glorious War and peace with altogether bleaker modern views of depersonalized Future War and a looming Post-Holocaust world. The much later "Moon Landing" (6 September 1969 The New Yorker; in Epistle to a Godson coll 1972) sees the recent Apollo mission to the Moon not in terms of Sense of Wonder but, dismissively, as "a phallic triumph". Auden's love affair with technology was clearly over.

His first major critical volume The Enchafèd Flood; Or, the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (delivered 1949; 1950) contains a long study of Herman Melville; The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (coll 1962) includes some useful discussion of Fantastika, in particular the logic of Fairytales [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], also wittily examined in his sonnet cycle "The Quest" (in The Double Man, coll 1941; vt New Year Letter 1941). He was an early advocate of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols), and wrote the sleeve notes for Tolkien's recorded reading Poems and Songs of Middle-earth (1967); the title of Secondary Worlds (delivered 1967; 1968) reflects, as here acknowledged, Tolkien's formulation. Occasional pieces assembled in Forewords and Afterwords (coll 1973) include essays on Lewis Carroll, G K Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling's verse, George MacDonald and Edgar Allan Poe. [DRL]

see also: Dogs; Poetry; Urban Legends.

Wystan Hugh Auden

born York, Yorkshire: 21 February 1907

died Vienna, Austria: 29 September 1973

works (selected)

collections and stories


about the author (highly selected)


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