Wystan Hugh Auden, a gay man and probably the greatest 20th century poet in the English speaking world, was born in York on 21 February 1907. He collaborated with Christopher Isherwood, the renowned gay novelist who he had met at school, on a number of plays and in the 1930s the two of them lived together in Berlin where they had gone to escape England's then repressive attitudes to homosexuality.
Although always open about his sexuality, while in Berlin he married Erika Mann, the daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann. They never lived together and the marriage was never consummated. It was a marriage of convenience to enable her to gain British citizenship and escape Nazi Germany.
In 1939, Auden and Isherwood emigrated to the United States. This was a controversial move, regarded by some as a flight from danger on the eve of war in Europe. In New York, Auden met the gay poet Chester Kallman, 12 years his junior. who would be his partner for the rest of his life. Auden taught at a number of American universities and, in 1945, took US citizenship. Neither man was totally faithful to the other. Auden occasionally dabbled with heterosexuality while also indulging with rent boys and rough trade. Kallman had frequent "extra-marital" sexual encounters, though always with other men.
Auden continued to publish poetry including "The Age of Anxiety" in 1947 for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He collaborated with Kallman on the libretto for Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress" in 1951. From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University.
In 1972, with his health declining, Auden along with Kallman left America and moved to live in Oxford, in a cottage belonging to Auden's old college, Christ Church. In the late 1950s, Auden and Kallman had bought a house in Austria, where they spent six months of every year. Auden died in Austria on 29 September 1973. Kallman was the sole beneficiary of Auden's estate, but himself died intestate in 1975, with the result that the estate was inherited by his next-of-kin, his father, a New York dentist in his eighties.
This documentary reveals how Auden's 20th century poetry helps us to have a better understanding of the 21st century and the tumultuous political climate in which we all now live. His poetry surged in popularity after his "Funeral Blues", a love poem from a man to his dead male lover, featured in the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral". After the tragedy of 9/11 New Yorkers turned to "1st September, 1939", trying to make sense of that senseless attack.
With contributions from writers Alan Bennett, Polly Clark, Alexander McCall Smith and Richard Curtis, and poets James Fenton and Paul Muldoon, all of whom share their passion for Auden and celebrate the potent impact of his work.
Video clip of "Funeral Blues" from Four Weddings and a Funeral:
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