10 Classic W. H. Auden Poems Everyone Should Read

The best Auden poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote a great deal of poetry, with many of the best Auden poems being written in the 1930s. In this post, we’ve taken on the difficult task of finding the ten greatest Auden poems – difficult because, although certain poems naturally rise to the surface and proclaim their greatness, there are quite a few of those. Here’s our top ten. Are there any classic poems by Auden that we’ve left off the list? Click on the title of each poem to read it.

Stop all the clocks’.

Also known as ‘Funeral Blues’, this poem, one of Auden’s ‘Twelve Songs’ originally published in 1936, needs no introduction, perhaps. Since it was recited in the funeral in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, it achieved worldwide fame and brought Auden’s poetry to a whole new audience. However, as we discuss in our analysis of this classic funeral poem, the story of the poem’s origins reveals a slightly more complex picture.

Autumn Song’.

Another one of the ‘Twelve Songs’ along with the more famous ‘Stop all the clocks’, this is a fine lyric about the brevity of youth and life’s disappointments. Auden wrote two different versions of the final stanza, although the tone of the poem remains largely the same in both. The poem helps to show how, as well as engaging with the specific events and political climate of the 1930s, Auden also captured a timeless sense of disappointment and sadness in much of his finest work.


One of Auden’s most tender poems, ‘Lullaby’ is perhaps the greatest gay love poem of the whole twentieth century (although as it is directly addressed to the recipient one can easily read the poem and forget that it is a male poet writing to another man); it is rightly among Auden’s best-loved poems. In many ways W. H. Auden young manhopelessly romantic, in other ways relentlessly realist (the addressee of the poem is only ‘human’; Auden himself is ‘faithless’), it is the sort of poem that many Auden devotees have committed to memory.

Night Mail’.

Thanks to the classic film which featured it – and for which it was specially written – ‘Night Mail’ remains one of Auden’s best-known poems. The film in which it features, a 1936 documentary produced by the General Post Office (GPO) film unit about the night train carrying mail from London to Scotland, remains a classic of British documentary filmmaking, thanks to Auden’s verse narration and Benjamin Britten’s musical score. You can watch the excerpt from the film featuring Auden’s poem here.

Musée de Beaux Arts’.

This poem from late 1938 has the memorable opening statement, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters’.  Auden wrote ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ in December 1938, while he was staying in Brussels with his friend Christopher Isherwood. The museum and art gallery mentioned in the poem’s title, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, is the Brussels art gallery, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which Auden visited. In the poem, Auden muses upon how, in many old Renaissance paintings, while something grand and momentous is taking place – the Nativity, say, or the Crucifixion – there are always people present in the painting who aren’t much bothered about what’s going on. Auden then poignantly considers a painting (thought to be) by Peter Brueghel the Elder, of Icarus, and the presence of a ship whose occupants seem unconcerned by ‘a boy falling out of the sky’.

In Memory of W. B. Yeats’.

Auden wrote a number of poems about his fellow poets, from A. E. Housman to Edward Lear, but this powerful elegy written in the wake of Yeats’s death in 1939 is his finest commemoration of another poet. As well as being an elegy for the dead poet, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is also a meditation on the role and place of poetry in the modern world. What is poetry for? Can it make anything happen? Should it make anything happen? The closing lines of Auden’s poem are inscribed on his own memorial stone in Westminster Abbey: ‘In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.’

September 1st, 1939’.

Auden later disowned this poem, written shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War (though uncannily anticipating events in another dark September, in 2001), arguing that the rhetoric won out over truth (‘We must love one another or die’ should, he reasoned, strictly be ‘We must love one another and die’). As W. H. Audena result, you won’t find it in the Faber Collected Poems (the only poem among this selection of best Auden poems that isn’t in that book). But you can read it by following the link in the title above.

If I Could Tell You’.

There aren’t many great villanelles in the English language (we have collected together some of our favourite examples here), but Auden’s ‘If I Could Tell You’ is up there with William Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’ and with probably the most famous villanelle in English, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. Written in 1940 during the Second World War, the poem conveys Auden’s, and much of the world’s, sense of uncertainty concerning the future. ‘If I Could Tell You’ teeters on being a love poem: the speaker tells the addressee ‘I love you more than I can say’. That much, it seems, is certain at least. We have analysed this poem here.

The More Loving One’.

In this 1957 poem, Auden meditates on unrequited love. ‘If equal affection cannot be,’ he confides, ‘Let the more loving one be me.’ Cleverly and beautifully, Auden dismantles the argument that, in a case of unrequited love, it is better to be the loved rather than the lover. How should we like it if the stars burned with ‘a passion for us we could not return’? We have analysed this poem here.

On the Circuit’.

Along with ‘The More Loving One’, this is the only one of the Auden poems from his late period (1963, to be precise) which we’ve included here. It tells of the life of a jobbing public intellectual – which was what Auden was in later life, as much as he was a man who wrote poems – travelling around the United States and giving public lectures.

Are there any favourite Auden poems we haven’t included here, which should be on the list? (We’ve discussed his short poem ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant‘ here, for instance.) What is the best Auden poem of the lot? Continue to explore Auden’s work with the wonderful Collected Auden. For more modern poetry, see our pick of Louis MacNeice’s best poems and the greatest Ted Hughes poems. For other poetry suggestions, check out these classic evening poems.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image (top): W. H. Auden in 1939, by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Photo of W. H. Auden, 1970, by TorontoPeter, via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Thank you – a great article. There’s two more that I’d like to add to your list that have had a profound effect upon me. One is particularly apt for the thousands upon thousands of refugees now on the move across the world – Say This City. And the other one is a bitter commentary on what a sterile relationship can do with the passing of time – As I Walked Out One Evening…

  2. If memory serves, I think “September 1st 1939” is anthologised in “The New Oxford Book of English Verse”. Kevin

  3. Great list! As I Walked Out One Evening is a personal favorite of mine (so much that I decided to memorize it) and I’ve been looking for other Auden poems to go alongside it. There are some here that I’m not familiar with and I look forward to reading them!

  4. Pingback: 10 Classic W. H. Auden Poems Everyone Should Read – Our Days & Futures

  5. I love the poetry of Auden. Thanks for the great article!

  6. I enjoyed this reminder of some of my favourite poetry. “A Communist to Others” was influential in my early days. Also, I enjoyed the haunting suspense in “Ballad” , where the cadence and rythimic tone added a sense of menace. Perhaps many of the lines in ” September I, 1939″ are still relevant today.

  7. thank you so muchh for the lovely collection!

    amazing poetry

  8. Reblogged this on newauthoronline and commented:
    I had originally commented on this post stating that “1st September 1939” can be found in “The New Oxford Book of English verse”. However, on checking I find that I am mistaken. While several of Auden’s poems do appear in “The New Oxford Book” “1st September 1939” does not. It can, however be found in “The Penguin Book of English Verse”, edited by John Hayward. Faber and Faber. 1956 edition.