W.H. Auden: Biography & Famous Poems

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore the life and work of W. H. Auden. In addition to his poetry, we will consider the context he was writing in and the central themes of his work.


'I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid' (1-3), begins W. H. Auden's famous 'September 1, 1939'. The poem, like so much of his work, is both deeply personal and truly symbolic of his times. Because of this, Auden's poetry offers tremendous insight into his own perspective and the general artistic mindset in America and England throughout the first half of the 20th century.


Wysten Hugh Auden was born in England in 1907. He was attracted to literature from a young age. He became particularly fascinated with poetry while attending Oxford University, where he was drawn to the work of T. S. Eliot and other poets who were producing innovative and unique poetry. After making his way into the circle of many of the twentieth century's most influential writers, Auden began writing and publishing his own work. Auden's connections to other writers allowed him to collaborate with other artists and publish in a variety of forms, although his poetry is some of his most influential work. Traveling through Europe and experiencing different cultures shaped his political and philosophical views and provided many of the themes that appear in his poetry.

Born in 1907, Auden grew up in the tumultuous early years of the 20th century.

Auden was a prolific writer from early on, and throughout the 1930s, he wrote not only poems, but also plays, more than 400 non-fiction pieces, and librettos, which are lyrics for longer, more traditional forms of music. In 1939, Auden moved to America, where he would spend the majority of the rest of his life. Around this time, Auden became a devout Christian, and his poetry explored the connection between religious and secular thought. Auden continued to produce a tremendous amount of work in a variety of genres throughout his career, which lasted until his death in 1973.


Much of Auden's work reflects the themes and conventions of the modernist movement in art. Modernism began around the beginning of the 20th century and lasted until around World War II. One of the main issues that modernists were responding to were the feelings of anxiety and suspicion that were being expressed by popular thinkers of the time. Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists, for example, began to challenge common assumptions about reality and the mind's ability to accurately comprehend the world. This, combined with the experience of witnessing the atrocities of World War I, resulted in many artists and writers feeling alienated and eager to construct work that made sense of the changes in the world around them.

One common characteristic of modernist poetry was the attempt to break free from strict poetic forms. Like many modernist writers, Auden produced poetry that abandoned many of the conventions that existed in poetry of the 19th century, such as strict meter and rhyme patterns. This did not, however, prevent Auden from uniquely using traditional aesthetics and poetic forms as well; Auden is known, for example, for using old and obscure poetic forms, some of which dated back hundreds of years. Moreover, his work contains topics that span from ancient religion and science to politics and psychology. This variety and range speaks to Auden's intelligence and his ability to speak to a diverse culture.


Auden's first collection was Poems, which was privately printed in 1928. It was, however, his second collection, also titled Poems and published in 1930, that introduced Auden as an innovative and original voice. Although similar to much modernist art in its themes and concerns, these poems are distinct in their use of a narrator who is both dramatic and emotionally detached. Through using a narrator who is able to reveal the personal anxiety of those living during in the 20th century, while at the same time grappling with the larger ideas that were being explored by artists and intellectuals, Auden provided an important voice for modernism.

The violence and damage experienced during WWI tremendously influenced many modernist writers.

Throughout the 1930s, Auden published multiple poems individually and in collections, including The Orators in 1932 and the collection On This Island in 1936. It was his 1940 collection of poems titled Another Time that solidified Auden as a defining voice of his generation.

The collection included 'Musee des Beaux Arts', one of Auden's most cited poems. 'Musee des Beaux Arts' at times uses a distinctly authoritative tone, beginning, for example, 'About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position...' (1-3).

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