As the poets have mournfully sung
Death takes the innocent young
The rolling in money
The screamingly funny
And those who are very well hung
- W.H. Auden
An English-born gay poet and thinker, Auden was born in York and brought up in Solihull in the West Midlands, an industrial landscape which was to remain important to him as a poet. He studied at Oxford, receiving his B.A. in 1928. From 1928 to 1929 Auden lived in Berlin, where he took advantage of the sexually liberal atmosphere, and was introduced to the psychological theories of Homer Lane.
After returning to England Auden taught for a while in various prep schools, and then became a staff member of the GPO Film Unit (1935-36), making documentaries such as Night Mail (1935). Music for this film was provided by Benjamin Britten, with whom Auden collaborated on the song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers and on the unsuccessful folk-opera Paul Bunyan. In 1936 Auden travelled in Iceland with Louis MacNeice - Auden believed himself to be of Icelandic descent.
Auden made his debut as a poet with Poems, in 1930. The poems were short, untitled, often slightly cryptic, a reaction to the romanticism of the time. He soon gained fame as a leftist intellectual, and wrote passionately on social problems, among others in his collection of poems Look, Stranger! (1936).
In 1937 Auden went to Spain as a civilian in support of the Republican side, and gave radio broadcasts for the Republican forces. He recorded his experiences in the book Spain (1937). In 1935 he married Thomas Mann's daughter Erika Mann, a lesbian actress and journalist, so that she could get a British passport.
Auden also collaborated with Christopher Isherwood in several plays, and travelled with him around China in 1938. In January 1939 they emigrated to America, and in 1946 Auden became a US citizen. In the 1940s he turned into a religious thinker, converting to Anglicanism, and depicted his conversion in The Sea and the Mirror (1944) and For The Time Being(1944) commentaries on Shakespeare.
During World War II Auden was a major with the U.S. Army Strategic Bombing survey in Germany. From 1956 to 1961 he was a professor of poetry at Oxford and a member of the American Academy from 1954. He lived primarily in New York, although from 1957 he spent summers in Kirchstetten, Austria. From 1939 to 1953 he taught at various schools and universities, continuing to write poetry and commentary, as well as a series of opera librettos with American poet Chester Kallman, who lived with him for over 20 years.
In 1972 Auden left New York and returned to Oxford, living in a cottage provided by Christ Church. He died of a heart attack after giving a poetry reading in Vienna on September 29, 1973. He was buried in nearby Kirchstetten.
Adapted from information in the Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature