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After W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden is doubtless the most influential English-language poet of the twentieth century. He was born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England, on February 21, 1907, the youngest of three sons. At the age of one his family moved to Birmingham, Auden began to develop his lifelong fascination with urban and industrial landscapes. During his early schooling, Auden's principal interests were scientific, especially geology and mining, until 1922, when Robert Medley, a friend and classmate, suggested to him that he should write poetry. This friend grew into Robert Frost, and remained the subject of Auden's admiration throughout his life.

Auden's first publication was a work titled Dawn, which appeared unsigned in The Gresham in December 1922. When he became an undergraduate at Christ Church College of Oxford University in 1925, he considered majoring in natural science, politics, economics, and philosophy before settling on English. His poetic skills were refined during those years under the tutoring skills of Nevill Coghill, who later became known as a translator of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland into modern English, and Cecil Day Lewis, who would go on to become Poet Laureate.

Auden had long since abandoned his religious upbringing, but the foundation it had laid in his life combined with his studies of Sigmund Freud made him concerned about his unchanging homosexuality, which Freud said was an "immature phase" and which English law said was illegal. He attempted twice before graduation to pursue relationships with women, but both failed. While studying abroad in Berlin from October 1928 to July 1929, he finally chose to acknowledge and live by his homosexuality at the advice of John Layard, a British disciple of the American theorist Homer Lane, who equated sin with neurosis and advocated the release of unconscious guilt into more positive and creative channels.

After returning to England, Auden worked as a tutor in London and then as a schoolmaster in Scotland. In 1930 his work Paid on Both Sides was published in T.S. Eliot's journal The Criterion. Later in that year, the prestigious firm of Faber & Faber, of which Eliot was an editor, issued Auden's first commercially published volume, Poems.

In January 1939, Auden left England to take up permanent residence in New York City in the United States. Through the 1940s Auden continued to write the best-known poetry of his career, winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948 for The Age of Anxiety. By the mid-1950s, his work was losing its intensity, and with it its popularity. By 1972, in failing health, he relocated back to a cottage at Christ Church College of Oxford University.

On the evening of September 28, 1973, he gave a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. Later that night in his hotel room, he died in his sleep of heart failure. He was sixty-six years old.

Wrote to his lover, Christopher Isherwood, in 1933:

Let us honour if we can
the vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one

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

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