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W. H. Auden

The Unknown Citizen

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Unknown Citizen” is a satirical elegy written by W. H. Auden shortly after he emigrated from England to the United States in 1939. It appeared in The New Yorker magazine on January 6, 1940, and was collected later into Another Time (1940). This collection featured what would become some of Auden’s most well-known poems, including “September 1, 1939,” “Funeral Blues,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and “Musee des Beaux Arts”, and helped solidify Auden’s reputation as a premier poet of his age. “The Unknown Citizen” is generally looked at in the light of the time it was written, on the eve of World War II. Many of Auden’s poems in Another Time were written between 1936 and1939, during the years of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the growing fascist movements after World War I. Auden’s stance was consistently anti-fascist and humanitarian. In “The Unknown Citizen,” he uses the unusual first-person plural narration of an unspecified State to laud one of its deceased members for his unfailing conformity. The poem shows Auden’s typical attention to rhyme, even in ironic context.

Poet Biography

Wystan Hugh Auden was a renowned poet who also wrote stage plays, screenplays, opera libretti, adaptations, and criticism throughout his career. He was born in York, England, on February 21, 1907, and raised by his physician father, George Augustus Auden, and his Anglican mother, Constance, a trained nurse who did not practice. Auden had two older brothers and the family resided near Birmingham, England (See: Further Reading & Resources).

From the age of eight, Auden went to boarding schools. At St. Edmund’s School in Surrey, he met lifelong friend and future novelist, Christopher Isherwood. In 1922, he went to Gresham’s School where he fell away from the Anglican faith, acted in Shakespeare, and discovered poetry. At 18, he enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford, to study biology and engineering. However, after attending lectures by J. R. R. Tolkien, he switched to English as a discipline. At this time, he independently met fellow students Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. Collectively, they are known as the “Oxford Group” and/or the “Auden Group” (a misnomer since they did not actually meet all at once until 1947). At this time, Auden also reconnected with Isherwood. In 1928, he went abroad for nine months, where Isherwood joined him. After he returned to England, his first book, Poems 1928, was privately printed by Spender. The poet T. S. Eliot, whom Auden admired, helped him publish this collection commercially.

From 1930-1935, Auden worked as a schoolmaster, and within the documentary film industry. Auden wrote and co-authored work with various collaborators throughout the 1930s (Benjamin Britten, MacNeice, Spender, and Isherwood among them). In 1933, he regained his faith, which later spurred his decision to return to Anglicanism (an event that occurred several years later in 1940). The 1930s was filled with travel to countries like Spain, China, the United States, and Belgium.

In 1935, although openly gay, Auden married Erika Mann, the German novelist Thomas Mann’s daughter. An outspoken lesbian who stood up against rising fascism, Mann was threatened by the advent of the Nazism in Germany. Auden not only agreed to marry Mann, but also arranged for his gay friend to marry Mann’s lover so that the two women could be together. While they never lived together, Auden and Mann remained married until Mann’s death in 1969.

Auden continued to write, publishing Look! Stranger in 1936 (later republished as On This Island in the United States in 1937). In 1939, Auden immigrated with Isherwood to the United States. Isherwood went on to live in California, while Auden chose New York City for his residence. Shortly afterward, he met poet Chester Kallman, who became a romantic partner, lifelong friend, and companion. When World War II broke out, Auden volunteered to return to England, but was told he was not needed. When he was later drafted into the United States Army, he was rejected for medical reasons. Auden moved into a house in Brooklyn Heights with writers Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, and others. He published two new collections of poems in the early 1940s, Another Time (1940), which contains some of his most famous poems, and The Double Man (1941).

He taught at The University of Michigan and Swarthmore College. For The Time Being, published in 1944, contained two long poems, The Sea and the Mirror and For the Time Being. The next year, Auden returned to Europe, and after viewing the post-war landscape, decided to resettle in Manhattan, leaving Pennsylvania. He worked as a freelance writer and visiting professor at schools like The New School, Bennington, and Smith, among others. The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden was published in 1945 and a year later, in 1946, Auden became a naturalized United States citizen. In 1948, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Several other volumes of poetry succeeded this, including Collected Shorter Poems, 1930-1944 (1950), Nones (1951), and Shield of Achilles (1955), which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1956.

In 1956, Auden began to divide his time between winters in Manhattan, weeks of teaching at Oxford, and summers in Austria. He continued to support himself as a freelance writer, giving readings and lectures. In the 1960s, he wrote Homage to Clio (1960), About the House (1965), Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 (1966), Collected Longer Poems (1968), and City Without Walls, and Other Poems (1969) The National Book Committee awarded him the National Medal for Literature in 1967. His last book of poems during his lifetime, Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems was published in 1972. That same year, Auden moved permanently to Oxford, which provided him a cottage at Christ Church. In 1973, at the age of 66, Auden died of heart failure. He was buried in Austria, and a memorial stone was placed in Westminster Abbey. His final poems were posthumously published in Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974).

Poem Text

Auden, W. H. “The Unknown Citizen.” 1940. Poets.org.


The poem opens with an epitaph in which the reader learns that a “Marble Monument / [has been] erected by the State” to “JS/07 M 378.” A listing of the man’s attributes as evaluated by said State follows. Their “Bureau of Statistics” (Line 1) assures the reader that the man had no objections against him and was considered “a saint” (Line 4), who served the populace at large. His life was spent working in “a [car] factory” (Line 7) and he had no trouble there. He paid his “Union [. . .] dues” (Line 10) regularly and had an average social life with his friends. “The Press” (Line 14) reports on his purchasing of newspapers and “his reactions to advertisements” (Line 15), which they cite as never unusual. He was not often sick and understood his financial payments plans. He was conscious of the conveniences of the “Modern Man.” Another office, that of “Public Opinion” (Line 22) reports that he went along with the common responses to political events. Finally, the State’s “Eugenist” (Line 26) approves of his marriage, and his number of offspring. The children’s “teachers” note that he never tried to sway their teaching agendas. When asked about the man’s status as an individual, including his rights to freedom and happiness, the State dismisses this as a ridiculous concern, noting that they would have been made aware if anything were amiss.