W.H. Auden and Swarthmore College


The poet W.H. Auden taught at Swarthmore for just three years, but his connection to the college community spanned three decades. This virtual exhibit explores Auden's association with Swarthmore and features rare documents and unique artifacts from the W.H. Auden Collection at the Swarthmore College Library.

By the time he arrived at Swarthmore College in 1942, Wystan Hugh Auden had earned a reputation as one of the foremost British poets of his era. According to the college's student newspaper, The Phoenix, the news that Auden would temporarily join the English faculty was greeted with "rumors" and "awe":

The arrival of W.H. Auden, one of the most distinguished of modern poets, to the College faculty as a "lecturer in English," was accompanied by the usual combination of a sparse, simple statement of his presence and a host of rumors. Said rumors chiefly consisted of the simple type best exemplified by "I saw him in the Music Shop," proclaimed in awed tones. As for the students, they ranged from very impressed (those who know Auden's work) to moderately impressed (those who know his name and distinction) to confused (the "Who is he?" group). ["Rumors, Awe Surround Auden's Arrival Here," October 20, 1942.]

Auden taught at Swarthmore from 1942 through 1945, but his relationship with the college endured until his death in 1973. While it is difficult to know precisely what effect his years at Swarthmore had on him as a person or as a writer, it can certainly be said that several generations of students felt Auden's impact on the campus. The poet's presence - in the pages of The Phoenix, in the library's special collections, as an occasional lecturer and esteemed visitor - loomed for decades, and was, for a time, far more than a mere footnote to the college's history.

This exhibit showcases artifacts of Auden's long affiliation with Swarthmore. If one looks beneath the surface of all the rumors and awe, it is possible to find revealing glimpses of a major poet and telling snapshots of the college community as they negotiated their places in a changing world.

*"Fellow Irresponsibles, follow me." ("Student Government - Or Bombs?" March 21, 1944.)