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The brilliant, eccentric life of poet WH Auden

His personal hygiene was questionable, he described himself as ‘not an alcoholic but a drunk’, and he fell out with JRR Tolkien about home decor. Fifty years since the death of WH Auden, Martin Chilton looks back at a legendary British poet still making headlines

Sunday 24 September 2023 08:07 BST
WH Auden, one of the 20th century’s best-loved poets, died 50 years ago
WH Auden, one of the 20th century’s best-loved poets, died 50 years ago (Getty)

Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm.” “If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me.” “He was my North, my South, my East and West/My working week and my Sunday rest.” Some of WH Auden’s couplets have the familiarity of poetry catchphrases.

Even as a youngster, Auden had a startling capacity for colourful language. “Mrs Carritt, this tea is like tepid pi**,” he told the shocked mother of his Oxford University friend Gabriel Carritt as she served him breakfast.

Wystan Hugh Auden, who died 50 years ago, on 29 September 1973, was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, with verses such as “Lullaby”, “In Memory of WB Yeats”, “Night Mail”, “September 1, 1939” and “Funeral Blues (Stop All the Clocks)” becoming ingrained in popular culture. Auden was a master of the elegy and his poems resonate with readers because they address the essential emotional predicaments that afflict us all. As well as being a literary giant, however, he was undeniably a strange and eccentric man.

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