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The Words of W. H. Auden


​Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973) was an English-American poet whose poetry was noted for its technicality and its political content as well as its morality and variety. Best known for "Funeral Blues”, "September 1, 1939" and "The Shield of Achilles”, he was born in York, but grew up in the Birmingham region in a professional middle-class family. After studying English at Christ Church, Oxford and spending a few months in Berlin in 1928–29, he spent five years (1930–35) teaching in Britain, then travelled to Iceland and China. In 1939 he moved to the United States and became an American citizen in 1946. His first book Poems at the age of twenty-three in 1930 was followed in 1932 by The Orators. His reputation as a left-wing political writer stemmed from three plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood between 1935 and 1938. Auden’s move to the United States was partly to escape this reputation, and his work in the 1940s, including the long poems "For the Time Being" and "The Sea and the Mirror", focused on religious themes. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1947 poem "The Age of Anxiety", the title of which became a popular phrase describing the modern era.

From 1956 to 1961 he was a popular Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Auden wrote many prose essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological, and religious subjects, also working at various times on documentary films, poetic plays, and other works. His poems became known to a much wider public after his death than during his lifetime through films, broadcasts, and popular media.

Here is a selection of quotes from his works:

“There must always be two kinds of art: escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.”

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street”

“The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews

Not to be born is the best for man

The second best is a formal order

The dance's pattern, dance while you can.

Dance, dance, for the figure is easy

The tune is catching and will not stop

Dance till the stars come down from the rafters

Dance, dance, dance till you drop.”

“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”

“Whatever you do, good or bad, people will always have something negative to say.”

“We must love one another or die”

“I will love you forever" swears the poet. I find this easy to swear too. "I will love you at 4:15 pm next Tuesday" - Is that still as easy?”

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

“He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.”

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.”

“Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,

Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,

Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh

There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.”

“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.”

“You shall love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart.”

“I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.”

“If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.”

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.”

“The image of myself which I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.”

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

“Thank God for books as an alternative to conversation.”

“We would rather be ruined than changed

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.”

“In times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag.”

“A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us. ”

“All we are not stares back at what we are.”

“You owe it to all of us to get on with what you're good at.”

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,

And shares our bed and eats at our own table ....”


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