Auden as a professor (1942-1945)

"A professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep."*

Auden's photograph in the 1945 Halcyon, the college yearbook.

Auden joined the Swarthmore faculty in 1942 as a "lecturer in English." He was neither a poet-in-residence nor a creative writing instructor, and he rarely spoke of his own work or gave public poetry readings while he was a member of the faculty.

During his first year at Swarthmore, he taught a course in Elizabethan Literature, followed by a seminar on Romanticism from Rousseau to Hitler. The following year, he assumed the title of Associate Professor; he continued to teach courses in literature (including one on Shakespeare) as well as English Composition courses that were primarily for the benefit of the American and Chinese Naval Units stationed on campus.

Auden's courses were fairly traditional, even conservative, in terms of their topics and emphases, but his approach to these subjects was often unique. In his Elizabethan Literature class, for example, the final examination consisted of the following question: "Explain why the devil is (a) sad and (b) honest." In that same course, he would mimeograph unfamiliar poems, leave out some of the words, and require his students to fill in the blanks. He also challenged his Composition students to think and write in unusual ways - one assignment for the course was to write the events of the day backwards.

According to Charles Osborne, in W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), Auden was popular with his students because "he treated them as adults and took their problems seriously" (Osborne 212).

*Quoted by Charles Osborne in W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979): "A professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep." (p. 332)