After W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden is doubtless the most influential English-language poet of the twentieth century. He was born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England, on February 21, 1907, the youngest of three sons. At the age of one his family moved to Birmingham, Auden began to develop his lifelong fascination with urban and industrial landscapes. During his early schooling, Auden's principal interests were scientific, especially geology and mining, until 1922, when Robert Medley, a friend and classmate, suggested to him that he should write poetry. This friend grew into Robert Frost, and remained the subject of Auden's admiration throughout his life.

Auden's first publication was a work titled Dawn, which appeared unsigned in The Gresham in December 1922. When he became an undergraduate at Christ Church College of Oxford University in 1925, he considered majoring in natural science, politics, economics, and philosophy before settling on English. His poetic skills were refined during those years under the tutoring skills of Nevill Coghill, who later became known as a translator of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland into modern English, and Cecil Day Lewis, who would go on to become Poet Laureate.

Auden had long since abandoned his religious upbringing, but the foundation it had laid in his life combined with his studies of Sigmund Freud made him concerned about his unchanging homosexuality, which Freud said was an "immature phase" and which English law said was illegal. He attempted twice before graduation to pursue relationships with women, but both failed. While studying abroad in Berlin from October 1928 to July 1929, he finally chose to acknowledge and live by his homosexuality at the advice of John Layard, a British disciple of the American theorist Homer Lane, who equated sin with neurosis and advocated the release of unconscious guilt into more positive and creative channels.

After returning to England, Auden worked as a tutor in London and then as a schoolmaster in Scotland. In 1930 his work Paid on Both Sides was published in T.S. Eliot's journal The Criterion. Later in that year, the prestigious firm of Faber & Faber, of which Eliot was an editor, issued Auden's first commercially published volume, Poems.

In January 1939, Auden left England to take up permanent residence in New York City in the United States. Through the 1940s Auden continued to write the best-known poetry of his career, winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948 for The Age of Anxiety. By the mid-1950s, his work was losing its intensity, and with it its popularity. By 1972, in failing health, he relocated back to a cottage at Christ Church College of Oxford University.

On the evening of September 28, 1973, he gave a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. Later that night in his hotel room, he died in his sleep of heart failure. He was sixty-six years old.