W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden was one of the great Anglo-American poets of the twentieth century. Like T.S. Eliot, he was an Anglican who became more so with age; otherwise they went in different directions. Eliot started out in Missouri and ended up domiciled in Britain, becoming a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39; Auden went just the other way, born in Great Britain and becoming an American citizen in 1946. Eliot was instinctively a man of the (sometimes anti-Semitic) right, Auden of the (briefly, totalitarian) left, though over time, he drifted as Mae West would put it: “I was born Snow White,” she once said, “but I drifted.” Eliot was a high modernist who had many literary affinities with Joyce and Pound; Auden’s poetry was less mannered and more direct. I admire them both tremendously; over the years I have spent more time with Auden. I suppose that’s because reading Eliot is like attending a formal dinner party where the conversation and the food are both excellent; reading Auden is more like sitting in a comfortable chair by the fireplace to have a chat with an old friend.
A bit of advice to younger writers or to people of any age seeking to develop your voice — whether you are interested in fiction, poetry, journalism or even wonking: spend some time with both these guys. They had fantastic ears for the English language; they bring a wealth and range of cultural associations to their work that gives it depth, resonance and authority; they know how to refract a subtle intelligence through language so that readers can see and appreciate their sensibilities; they can make themselves live on the page.