W.H. Auden

Mystical Experience of W.H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973) was a British-American poet, playwright, critic, and librettist, considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Auden’s poetry covered a range of subjects, including love, political and social themes, cultural and psychological themes, and religious themes.  Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for The Age of Anxiety, a long poem about humankind’s quest to find meaning and identity in a changing, industrialized world.

Auden had a number of spiritual experiences during the 1930s and 1940s, highlighting a particularly formative mystical experience that occurred when he was 26 years of age:

“One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man.  We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another.  Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol.  We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”

Although Auden provided the above-referenced account of his mystical experience, he believed such experiences to be ineffable, writing that, “I don’t think the mystical experience can be verbalized. When the ego disappears, so does power over language.”

Quoted from Forewords and Afterwards by W.H. Auden.

Photo Credit:  Portrait of W.H. Auden from the Van Vechten Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress.

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