Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember one of the greatest poets of the 20th century who was also an adult convert to Christianity: W.H. Auden.

It is the 21st of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


I have learned many things from my wife, Beth Anne. Amongst the things that pertain to this show is her reminding me that everyone has a different tolerance for poetry.

I have taken note that if you’d like to express something, she is one of those who prefers brief, declarative sentences a la Ernest Hemingway. But subjectivity is part of the arts, and there are those gifted with talents which, even if we don’t recognize directly, we can be thankful for them and the ways in which they testify to the truth with them. Such is the case with a man on the shortlist for “most important poet of the 20th century”. He was Wysten Hugh Auden, W.H. Auden, who was born on this the 21st of February, in York, England, in 1907.

He was raised in the Industrial north of England, where his father was a physician and professor, and his mother was a nurse. His father imbued him with a love of Icelandic myth and literature, and his mother nurtured him in her warm Anglican (perhaps Anglo-Catholic) tradition.

He was sent off to a preparatory school and then to the UK’s famed “Public” system (which, ironically, means: “private school”). It was during his time in the notorious public school that he came to understand totalitarianism and the inhumane things one can do to another in the name of power, control, and uniformity.

He would later write in a poem:

“I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.”

He initially studied to become a mining engineer or another of the sciences but became enthralled with poetry and literature. By 1922, at the age of 15, he considered himself both a poet and no longer a Christian. He, like many in his generation, was appalled at the brutality of the ‘War to End All Wars’ with many joining the so-called “lost Generation” of people and artists willing to embrace the absurd in light of the reality they had experienced in wartime.

Auden never made such a jump- he attended Christ Church in Oxford, spent a year abroad in Berlin, and then came back home to work as a schoolmaster. While his parents were well off, they didn’t have the money to support a poet without any other work. His first work of poems was published together in 1930 with the help of T.S. Eliot and became a rising star amongst some of the literati.

Auden then spent time abroad; a hero of the new young Left, he volunteered in the Spanish Civil War with the Republicans against the Fascist Franco. It was here, in 1937, that he began making his way back to the faith of his youth. The disillusionment with this generation would come out in his poem “September 1939.”

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright 

And darkened lands of the earth

This poem, written at the outbreak of the 2nd World War, was written from New York, where Auden had recently moved. But it was a German and another Englishman that would help bring him back into the household of faith.  

One would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom Auden respected as a man of peace and conscience. He didn’t fully grasp his theology, but that would be aided on account of Auden's relationship with Charles Williams, of inkling fame (along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien). Charles Williams, a colleague of T.S. Eliot’s, had written a curious history of the church called “The Descent of the Dove”. It was in this book that Williams introduced Auden and others to the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard.

In 1947, Auden published “The Age of Anxiety,” a 6 part poem playing with some of Kierkegaard's ideas about what ills modern society.

The effects of the two wars left Auden searching for something that could make sense of the evil that men can do. And he found this in the Christian story of fall and redemption. He would write:

The statement, ‘Man is a fallen creature with a natural bias to do evil,’ and the statement, ‘Men are good by nature and made bad by society,’ are both presuppositions, but it is not an academic question to which one we give assent. If, as I do, you assent to the first, your art and politics will be very different from what they will be if you assent, like Rousseau or Whitman, to the second. 

Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio crackles with the imminence of God coming in the manger but also in its racial approach to what that event brings to bear in the current moment:

To those who have seen

The Child, however dimly,
however incredulously,

The Time Being is, in a sense,
the most trying time of all.

Auden would live in America until, in 1948, he began splitting his time between Europe and America. He would become a professor of Poetry at his Alma Mater, Oxford, in 1956. He supplemented his income as a writer in popular magazines. He would win the Bollingen Award for poetry, A National book award, and a Pulitzer Prize. He lived a life in tension, recognizing his own slanted self but also the love of God in Christ.

Auden fell ill while in Austria on a speaking tour in 1973 and died there of heart failure on the 28th of September. Born on this day in 1907, W.H. Auden was 66 years old.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, the climax to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who tells me he would love to visit Austria and he knows from his time at Outback Steakhouse what to expect… Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who once thought of Auden as a spiritual forefather to Morrissey, until the latter got extra-weird. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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