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W.H. Auden: Immigrant Poet Turned East Villager

Wystan Hugh Auden, one of the most significant poets of the 20th century, was born in York, England, in 1907. His early career and works were deeply rooted in the English landscape and literary tradition. However, Auden’s move to the United States in 1939 and his subsequent acquisition of American citizenship on May 20, 1946, marked a transformative period in his life and work. One of Auden’s most significant periods was spent living in the East Village at 77 St. Mark’s Place where he lived from 1953 until 1972.

Auden’s decision to emigrate to the United States was driven by a combination of personal, political, and artistic reasons. Auden had become something of a celebrity in the UK and he was ready to shed his reputation as a left-wing poet and create a new identity in the new world. By the late 1930s, Europe was on the brink of war, and the political climate in Britain was increasingly fraught. Auden sought new horizons in the U.S., both geographically and intellectually.

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W. H. Auden (right) photographed by Carl Van Vechtne, 6 February 1939

In 1939, Auden and his friend and sometime lover, the poet Christopher Isherwood, left England for the United States. This move was initially met with criticism from some of his contemporaries, who saw it as an abandonment of his homeland during a time of crisis. However, Auden’s relocation allowed him to escape the immediate turmoil of World War II and to immerse himself in a different cultural and literary milieu.

After several years of living and teaching in the United States, Auden applied for U.S. citizenship and was granted it on May 20, 1946. This new status was more than just a legal change; it represented a deepening of his engagement with American society and its issues. Auden’s poetry began to reflect his observations of and interactions with American culture, politics, and landscapes. While his earlier works are characterized by their political engagement and formal experimentation, his later works, written in the U.S., display a more personal and philosophical depth.

One of the most significant poems from his early residency here in the U.S. is “The Age of Anxiety,” which won Auden the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This long poem, set in New York City, explores themes of human isolation and existential despair in the modern age. It reflects the anxieties of a post-war society and the search for meaning in an increasingly fragmented world.

The building at 77 St. Mark’s Place where Auden lived and worked

In 1953 he settled into a railroad apartment with his partner Chester Kallman at 77 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. He lived there until 1972. The Holiday Cocktail Lounge opened next door to Auden’s apartment in 1965 and he was a regular there. The owner was a Ukranian immigrant, Stefan Lutak, who tended bar until he was 89. Auden often sat by the window writing with a stubby pencil, erasing and re-writing.

He was known to drink a bottle of cognac as he sat there, writing and chain-smoking. According to legend, Lutak said, “When he sober, he can’t write. When he too drunk he can’t write. You could never say when he was drunk, because he drinking all the time.”

The Holiday Cocktail Lounge at 75 St. Mark’s Place

In addition to “The Age of Anxiety,” Auden’s American years produced other notable works such as “Nones” and “The Shield of Achilles.” These collections delve into themes of faith, morality, and the human condition, demonstrating a mature and reflective voice that had evolved through his experiences in the United States.

W.H. Auden by Richard Avedon, 1960. In the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Auden’s time in America also saw significant personal growth. He formed enduring friendships with other literary figures such as Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, and Chester Kallman, with whom he collaborated on several opera libretti, and achieved a degree of domestic stability that had eluded him in his earlier years.

Becoming an American citizen allowed Auden to fully integrate into the cultural and intellectual life of his adopted country. He held various teaching positions at American universities, including Princeton and Swarthmore, where he influenced a new generation of poets and writers. His lectures and writings on poetics and society contributed to his reputation as a leading public intellectual. Auden’s journey from England to America and his subsequent works underscore the profound ways in which a change of environment and status can influence an artist’s vision and legacy

Conincidentally, 2024 marks the 30th anniversary of the classic rom-com, “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” In the pantheon of romantic comedies, few films have left as indelible a mark as this one. Released in 1994, the British film enchanted audiences worldwide with its witty dialogue, endearing characters, and a narrative that masterfully blends humor and pathos, wit and warmth. However, beyond the romance and humor, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” served as an unexpected cultural bridge, introducing the profound poetry of W.H. Auden to a broader American audience.

Central to the film’s emotional resonance is the scene of the eponymous funeral, where the character Matthew delivers a heart-wrenching eulogy for his partner Gareth. The film’s emotional climax is undeniably tied to the recitation of W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” (also known as “Stop All the Clocks”). The moving delivery of the poem transforms the scene into a moment of profound collective mourning, not just for the deceased, but for all the unspoken sorrows and unfulfilled loves in our collective lives. The poem captures the depth of sorrow with Auden’s characteristic stark and stirring eloquence:

Funeral Blues
by W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

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.

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.

Auden was a devoted parishioner at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. Legend has it that he would promenade to St. Mark’s Church each Sunday wearing his slippers. In 2021, we honored Auden as one of the luminaries in our outdoor public art and history exhibition, VILLAGE VOICES. The shadowbox could be found on the rails surrounding the garden of his beloved church.

You can access our virtual VILLAGE VOICES exhibit here.

Upon Auden’s departure from New York in 1972, he wrote a farewell to his adopted city/neighborhood:

“New York… is not simply a metropolis: It is also a city of
neighborhoods, and I consider myself extremely fortunate in the one where I have lived for the past twenty years. (To me it will always be the Lower
East Side
, never The East Village.)”
W.H. Auden, 1972

You can also read more about W.H. Auden’s time in our neighborhoods in Frances Morrone’s A History of the East Village and Its Architecture that was commissioned by Village Preservation.

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