Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Lucy McDiarmid

Committee Member

Tom Benediktsson

Committee Member

Jonathan Greenberg


This thesis addresses the spiritual subtext in W. H. Auden’s poetry and the way this subtext is manifest as an imagining of the secular in spiritual terms. Through biographical and critical texts, Auden’s poetry can be understood as a method of exploring his own spiritual framework. “The Unknown Citizen,” “For the Time Being,” and “The Shield of Achilles,” written between 1939 and 1952, Auden’s spiritual concerns can be observed.

Each of the poems grows on the foundation of the previous one. “The Unknown Citizen” (1939) is the least spiritual, ironizing Auden’s own perspective; Auden uses this ironizing process again for the voice of Herod in “For the Time Being” (1942). “The Unknown Citizen” uses a satirical base to discuss ethical concerns which anticipate the spiritual concerns addressed in “For the Time Being.” Auden draws from the modern, secular world and transforms them in the context of the Nativity sequence in the Bible. Auden uses anachronisms throughout the poem to complicate any attempt to understand the poem as purely biblical or purely modern.

“The Shield of Achilles” (1952) continues his criticism of society’s lack of spirituality. This second transformation imagines an episode from The Iliad in modern terms. By juxtaposing the images of Thetis’s idealized society with dystopian images which Hephaestos forges onto the shield, Auden criticizes both those who lack spirituality, like the subjects of the dystopian shield, and those who fail to understand it, like Thetis. Auden never actually settles on an ideology, and his spiritual explorations raise more questions than they answer, but he also deftly presents spirituality and the lack of spirituality in all three poems.

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