W. H. Auden (1907–1973) is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest English poets. He spent time in Berlin in the late 1920s.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973) could be thought of as the Berlin pioneer among the male English writers of the 1930s. He was there first in 1928–29. His friends Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender followed him, lured by his enthusiastic reports. Auden exemplifies a rebellious streak of Germanophilia that took hold in England during the 1920s. While previous generations had looked to France for inspiration, young writers now turned to Germany, the country that had been Britain’s enemy, as an act of dissent against their fathers. Stifled by the stuffiness and propriety of interwar Britain, they idealised the liberal ethos of Germany during the Weimar Republic.
Like Isherwood and Spender, part of the attraction of going to Berlin for Auden was to enjoy the city’s tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. He initially lodged with family connections in an affluent but semi-rural setting at Potsdamer Chausse 40, by the Wannsee; but he soon moved to the much shabbier working-class district of Kreuzberg, where he was freer and closer to the city’s famous gay nightlife. Auden’s new place in Fürbingerstraße 8 was, in fact, down the road from the Cosy Corner, to which Auden introduced Isherwood on his first visit. In Berlin, Auden met the English anthropologist John Layard, through whom he became acquainted with the theories of the American psychologist Homer Lane, who argued that repression was the cause of physical illness.
Although Auden wrote no poem or text that was strictly about Berlin, his experiences in the city caused two important transformations that had a deep impact on his writing: he became aware of social injustice and he embraced his homosexual identity with gusto. In Berlin, Auden worked on his poetry and on a play titled Paid on Both Sides: A Charade (1930). He also composed a comic play called The Fronny, after the nickname of another Berlin acquaintance, the British archaeologist Francis Turville-Petre, who was Isherwood’s flatmate in an apartment connected to the Institute of Sexual Science. He even wrote a series of cheeky erotic poems in bad German. The Berlin period cemented the productive collaboration between Auden and Isherwood, both of whom would later move to America. Stefano Evangelista
Auden, W. H., The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977)
Bucknell, Katherine, and Nicholas Jenkins, W. H. Auden: ‘The Map of All my Youth’ – Early Works, Friends and Influences (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990)
Page, Norman, Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998)