Auden's lectures

"I think that at least one requirement for a lecturer is that he should have something to say."*

vocation and society
Reproduced with the permission of the Estate W.H. Auden
Typescript of Phi Beta Kappa address, January 1943.

During his years as a professor, Auden lectured outside the classroom on a variety of subjects - everything from the "Role of Education in a Democratic Society" (in 1943), to the function of ritual (in 1944, at a meeting of the campus Episcopalian organization) and "Rimbaud's Influence on English Poetry" (also in 1944).

One of his first lectures at the college was on "Vocation and Society," delivered as the Phi Beta Kappa address in January 1943. Auden posited that man's true vocation is self-realization, the "state of subjective requiredness," while the role of society is to nurture those who find their passion and strive to realize it fully. This is the ideal: a "government of, by, and for the ego." (The typescript of this speech, available as a PDF, contains Auden's handwritten corrections.)

In the spring of 1945, during his final semester as a Swarthmore professor, Auden was selected by the graduating class as the speaker for its last Collection. In a speech entitled "The World of Flesh and the Devil," Auden spoke of three personality types - the careful conformist whose successes in life lead to nothing but ulcers, the decadent rebel whose brilliance is snuffed out by excess or suicide, and the saintly nonconformist who idolizes only freedom. (In Auden's view, colleges should strive to produce more graduates of the latter type.) Auden's conclusion consisted of advice to the students, exhortations to "read the New Yorker," "never forget you're a heel," and "trust in God and take short views," among others; much of this advice became the poem "Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times," which he read at Harvard in 1946.

*Quoted by Charles Osborne in W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979): "I think that at least one requirement for a lecturer is that he should have something to say." (p. 332)