Biography of W.H. Auden

Photo of WH Auden

W.H. Auden was a twentieth century poet.

When and Where was he Born?

21st February 1907, Number 54 Bootham, York, Yorkshire, England. Christened Wystan Hugh Auden.

Auden Birthplace
Birthplace of W.H. Auden, 54 Bootham, York
now HPH Chartered Accountants (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Family Background:

Wystan Hugh Auden was the son of a General Practitioner (doctor) George Augustus Auden and his wife Constance Rosalie Bicknell a former nurse. He was the youngest of three sons. His paternal grandfather was the vicar of St John the Divine at Horninglow near Burton on Trent in Staffordshire. His mother was a relation of John Constable’s wife’s uncle.


St. Edmund’s School, Hindhead Surrey. Gresham’s School, Holt, Suffolk. Christchurch College, Oxford.

Timeline of W.H. Auden:

1908: The family moves to Birmingham, England where Auden stayed until he was thirteen developing an interest in urban, industrial scenes.

1915: Auden goes to School in Hindhead, Surrey where he met his lifelong friend Christopher Isherwoood.

1920: He moves to a school in Holt, Norfolk.

1922: A classmate at school suggested that he write poetry and he publishes his first work in the School magazine.

1925: Auden goes up to Oxford to study natural science but soon changed to read English Literature. His tutor was Neville Coghill who was later to become a renowned medieval English Scholar and translator of Chaucer. Here he meets fellow poets Louis McNiece, Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender.

1928: Spender produces a book of Auden’s poems at his own expense with about 45 copies being printed. In his later years at college he was worried by his homosexuality and went through analysis as he felt it was against the principles of Freud whom he had admired and his earlier religious upbringing. At the end of his studies his father offered him the money to spend a year abroad and thus he went off to Berlin.

York Minster
View of York Minster from the steps of Auden’s Birthplace (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1929: Auden is joined in Berlin in March by Christopher Isherwood who was to write so notably about his experiences there. After his return to England he worked as a private tutor in London.

1930: Auden begins a two year period as a schoolmaster at the Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh, Scotland. Meanwhile T.S. Eliot had accepted one of his poems “Paid on Both Sides” to be published in his journal “The Criterion” and arranged for a volume called “Poems” to be published by Faber and Faber, a publishers of which he was an editor.

1932: He starts a two-year period as a schoolmaster at a school in Colwall, Scotland.

1935: He worked for six months for the General Post Office Film Unit where he collaborated on several projects with the young British composer Benjamin Britten. He also began to write a series of joint works with Christopher Isherwood. He marries Erika Mann, the eldest Daughter of Thomas Mann to allow her a British Passport to escape the NAZIS.

1937: He visits Spain to observe the Spanish Civil War at first hand and serves as an ambulance driver.

1939: In perhaps the most controversial act of his life he and Christopher Isherwood sail to the United states to set up a new life, Isherwood settling in California whilst Auden goes to New York. Auden claimed he wanted to get away from the stultifying inbred nature of the literary world in London, but to many they saw him as fleeing Britain in its hour of peril.

1940: Auden once again finds religion after becoming an atheist whilst at university and becomes a member of the Anglican Church during October. He starts to to write a series of long poems such as “The Sea and the Mirror” and the “Double Man”. He becomes Associate Professor of Literature at Michigan University.

1946: He takes up American Citizenship and also becomes an editor for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, which he was to hold until 1958.

1948: He wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with “The Age of Anxiety” a poem written in Anglo-Saxon measures.

1955: He publishes “The Shield of Achilles an anthology with the title poem dealing with cruelty.

1956: Auden becomes Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

1958: He buys a house in Austria where he was to spend six months in every year writing. Many critics of his poetry of his later years were to say that they were not up to the standards of his earlier work and criticised them for being self-indulgent and having trivial themes but there are still many who admire this work.

1972: Auden leaves New York permanently to live in a cottage at Christ Church College, Oxford University, England.

1973: Auden gives a poetry reading in Vienna on 28th September and later that night dies of heart failure in his hotel bedroom. His death certificate recorded “arteriosclerosis, hypertrophy of the heart, and endocarditis”.

When and Where Did he Die?

29th September 1973, Kirchstetten, Lower Austria of heart failure.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1930: “Poems”.
1932: “The Orators’.
1933: “The Dance of Death”.
1936: “The Dog beneath the Skin. (with Isherwood), “Look Stranger””.
1937: “Letters from Iceland”. (with MacNiece), “’The Ascent of F6″. (with Isherwood).
1938:  “On the Frontier”. (with Isherwood).
1939: “Ballad of Heroes” (A Libretto for Benjamin Britten).
1940: “Another Time”.
1941: “New Year Letter”.
1944: “For the Time Being”.
1948: “The Age of Anxiety”.
1950:  “Collected Shorter Poems – 1930-44”.
1951: “Nones”.
1955: “The Shield of Achilles”.
1960: “Homage to Clio”. “”Collected Shorter Poems – 1927-57″”.
1968: “Collected Longer Poems”.
1969:  “City Without Walls”.


1935 to Erika Mann, the eldest Daughter of Thomas Mann to allow her a British Passport to escape the NAZIS.

Site of Grave:

Churchyard, Kirchstetten, Lower Austria.

Places of Interest:


Memorial Slab in Westminster Abbey unveiled by Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate.