Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

W.H. Auden

(1907 - 1973)

In 1925 W.H. Auden entered the University of Oxford, where he emerged as one of his generation’s most important poets. He then moved to the United States in 1939, served in the Morale Division of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey during World War II, and became a U.S. citizen in 1946, the same year that he wrote, “To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character.” He received a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Anxiety in 1948, and, along with partner Chester Kallman, wrote the libretto for Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress in 1951. He died in Vienna at the age of sixty-six in 1973.

All Writing

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

—W.H. Auden, 1957

My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.

—W.H. Auden, c. 1967


In 1956 a shelter run by Catholic social worker Dorothy Day was ordered closed by New York City for being a firetrap. Day was fined $250. On her way to court, she passed a group of needy-looking men, one of whom gave her a check and said, “I want to help out a little bit toward the fine. Here’s two-fifty.” Based on the man’s shabby dress, Day assumed he had given $2.50; later she noticed the check was for the full amount and signed by W.H. Auden, who had read about her case and come to help. “Poets do look a bit unpressed, don’t they?” Day said.

Anyone who has a child should train him to be either a physicist or a ballet dancer. Then he’ll escape.

—W.H. Auden, 1947

Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.

—W.H. Auden, c. 1940

No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent human actions called games.

—W.H. Auden, 1962

A tremendous number of people in America work very hard at something that bores them. Even a rich man thinks he has to go down to the office everyday. Not because he likes it but because he can’t think of anything else to do.

—W.H. Auden, 1946


At the end of The Tempest, Prospero relinquishes his “rough magic” and declares, “I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.” In W.H. Auden’s “commentary” on the play, The Sea and the Mirror, Prospero says at the beginning, “Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,/Who knows now what magic is:—the power to enchant/That comes from disillusion. What the books teach one/Is that desires end up in stinking ponds.”

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