The inspiration for the work of a poet is stimulated by their role in both society and the environment. In the case of W.H. Auden the diversity of his works represent the variation of experiences in his life. According to Professor E. Hishikawa at Kobe University, “Auden’s literary life can be divided into four main phases; his fathers influence, devotion for landscapes, travels, and arrival to the United States of America.” Together, all these periods in his life make up the great variety of the works that are considered to be some of the best of the century.
His father influenced his earliest phase of writing. He was a great physician whom Auden shared a close, affectionate relationship with. This medical, and scientific influence became the motif of his early poetic works. These poems were filled with recurrent images of disease, healing, and bodily functions. Professor Hishikawa stated that “his poem Lullaby was a direct example of this.”
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Thoughtful children, and the grave
This poem can be seen as Auden’s perspective of his father’s profession. In this particular case Auden writes about how these children put their trust into his father, and although sometimes they may die, to him they are still beautiful. In this specific stanza he is demonstrating that in reality sick people do indeed die, regardless of their age.
According to biographies.com Auden’s family eventually moved to Birmingham, and it was here that he established his interest in landscapes, and thus began the second stage of his works. It is said that Auden became fascinated with urban and industrial landscapes, and created a private and imaginary world composed of limestone, and deserted mines. These images are found in one of his later poems “In Praise of Limestone”.
“…But when I try to make a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone
This is the constant relevancy that was in his poetry reflecting upon his love for the landscapes, and the art that was held within them.
After his college graduation he spent his year abroad and was complemented with new experiences that marked the influences of his work. Biographies.com stated that “he spent several months in China and Japan, and served as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War.” These events influenced the third phase of his writing. His poem “In Time of War” shows a detachment from the war-like events, suggesting that he considered war objectively and “deliberated on it’s consequences.”
“Austria died and China was forsaken
Shanghai in flames and Terul retaken.”
These experiences were paramount in the development of his brand of Marxism. In addition to promoting this Auden had some more general political opinions. Agreeing with Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia “Auden held that it was the citizens duty to question the social and political climate which they found themselves in.” The skepticism was a result of his experience in the First World War and the Spanish War. In “The Garrison” Auden states:
“Whoever rules our duty to the city
Additionally it is realized that the place of evil and wickedness and the potential for human wrongdoing. His opinions on this topic are clearly expressed in a line from his poem “Herman Melville”:
“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”
The Auden Society.com states that “in 1939 he emigrated to the United States and settled in New York.” The fourth stage of his writing began to develop here. “His work began to deteriorate, become self-obsessed, and include little if any significance.” He soon began to discover that poetry was an art that either needed to be created or destroyed. In his poem “The Cave of Making” his new writing form is perceived:
“After all, it’s rather a privilege
To serve this unpopular art which can not be turned into
It is obvious that the occurrences in the life of W.H. Auden influenced his writing. Through his poetry, and the mentioned sources we can understand the time period that he was living in, and how he felt towards the issues he wrote about. His skepticism of contemporary society, openness to new ideas, and broad range of life experiences all contribute to his remarkable poetry.