Analysis of Poem "The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden

Updated on January 22, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

W.H.Auden
W.H.Auden | Source

W.H. Auden and The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen is a poem that Auden wrote at a turning point in his life, when he left England for the USA and left behind the idea that his poetry could make anything happen in the world.

The year was 1939, Hitler had plunged Europe into darkness and the young Auden was horrified. But he had already done his bit for the cause, having married Erika Mann, the daughter of famous writer Thomas Mann, to help save her from the brutality of the Nazis.

His move to America helped broaden his artistic output. He began to concentrate on religion and relationships in his poetry, as opposed to left-wing politics, and he also ventured into writing drama and libretti.

Auden was a gifted craftsman as a poet, writing long, technically astute poems but he also embraced the move towards free verse, combining both modern and traditional elements. The human condition was his main focus, but he did say that:

"poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil..."

Teacher, essayist and social commentator, but above all a poet, he continued to live in the USA, after becoming a citizen in 1946. New York city was his home for many years.

During the latter part of his life he moved back to England - Oxford, Christ Church College - establishing a small reputation as a talk show guest on prime time British television. Great writers could hold a modern t.v. audience back then.

Witty, wise, with a cigarette in his hand and a dishevelled look about him, he kept a close eye on matters social, spiritual and cultural, right to the end, which came in 1973.

  • The Unknown Citizen, with its long rambling lines and full rhyming end words, has a bureaucrat as speaker paying tribute to a model individual, a person identified by numbers and letters only. It is delivered in, some might say, a boring monotonous tone, a reflection of the bureaucracy under which the citizen served.
  • The poem is a powerful reminder to us all that the state, the government, the bureaucracy we all help create, can become a faceless, indifferent and often cruel machine.
  • It raises the two important questions - Who is free? Who is happy?

It can manipulate and exploit, keeping us all under control without us even knowing. Think of Orwell's 1984, or Huxley's Brave New World. Ideas such as freedom of speech, non conformism and individual expression are not entertained, not even understood.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)


He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Analysis of The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen is both satirical and disturbing, written by Auden to highlight the role of the individual and the increasingly faceless bureaucracy that can arise in any country, with any type of government, be it left-wing or right-wing.

The tone of the poem is impersonal and clinical, the speaker more than likely a suited bureaucrat expressing the detached view of the state. The unknown citizen is reduced to a mere number, a series of letters; there is no name, no birthplace or mention of loved ones.

  • It is clear from the first five lines that the state is in total control and has planned and structured this individual's life in order to create a complete conformist, someone who has a clean identity, who serves the greater good. The state even call him a 'saint', because he kept to the straight and narrow and was a good role model, not because he was holy or carried out religious acts.

He maintained the standards expected of him by those in power. He worked hard, was part of the union but never strayed or broke the rules. Only the war interrupted his working life which made him a popular member of the workforce.

There is mention of the Social Psychology department, part of the state who no doubt investigated his background when he died, and found all was normal according to his mates.

He bought a newspaper each day, that is, he read the propaganda dished out by the bias press, and had no adverse reaction to the advertisements in that paper. There is some sound corporate brain-washing going on here and this citizen has one of the cleanest in the Greater Community.

He's not a critical thinker but a solid type of guy who you would want living next door. He keeps up with his household goods, he adheres to all societal rules. This man is an average Joe, a perfect citizen who is conditioned to routine and will never question the settled life, unless the state call on him for purposes of war.

This citizen is treated like a little boy himself, patted on the head for being a good if unquestioning person. But note that the speaker mentions the Eugenist - a person who investigates eugenics, the genetic make up of this man's family - and coldly says that his 5 children was the 'right number' for his generation.

As if the state was counting, making sure they had enough fresh conformists to carry on in the Greater Community.

  • The last two lines are puzzling and certainly ambiguous. The speaker is being facetious by asking if this man was free or happy, for the state, the bureaucratic machine knows nothing of these two immeasurable qualities.

The speaker knows that those in power have put in place all that is necessary to nullify the citizen - effective propaganda being their main tool. This is how they get rid of critical thinking, of freedom of speech, of social unrest and protest.

So Auden's poem is a reminder of the potential dangers inherent in any system of government, in any bureaucracy anywhere, anytime - the individual can lose their unique identity, become a non-person, without a voice, without a say in how things are run.

More Analysis of The Unknown Citizen - Rhyme

The Unknown Citizen is a single stanza of 29 lines, most of them long and hardly able to carry the full rhymes that form part of an unusual rhyme scheme:

ababa ddeffgge hh ii jkkj ljlnnnoo

Some of the lines are so long that the rhymes at the end tend to produce a comic effect, which is exactly what the poet aimed for - the reader has to work really hard to get the full effect of the rhyming words.

The rhyme scheme shows that, while some of the rhymes are close together - in couplets, triplets or in alternate lines - other rhyming lines are far apart. For example, lines 8 and 13 (Inc. / drink) and lines 18, 21 and 23 (declare / frigidaire / year). Note that year is a slant rhyme with the other two, not full rhyme.

Why have rhymes that are far apart? Well, all rhymes tend to bond lines and cement understanding of content; full rhymes bring harmony and resonance. A slant rhyme isn't quite all there, is incomplete. Rhymes that are far apart have loose connectivity, a distant familiarity.

This rhyme scheme is mixed, there is no regular pattern, so its effect is to bond, confuse and some might say, loosen by humour (humor in American English).

Tone

The speaker in this poem, probably a faceless bureaucrat given a standard set of lines to reel out, creates a tone of cold and calculating indifference.

As the reader progresses, the dry, emotionless content takes control and by half way it is clear that monotony is king. There is no colour (color), no personal reference points, no description of personality, no life.

This increasingly dull tone is reinforced by bland repetition: note the lines that begin with And, He, That, For - and all but 2 lines are subject to this single syllable treatment. Could this have been created by a machine? A robot?

The poem reflects the fact that a human being has been reduced to numbers and letters on a monument, that a citizen is now estranged from humanity.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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  • chef-de-jour profile image
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    Andrew Spacey 4 weeks ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Auden's Unknown Citizen is well worth getting to know. Appreciate the visit.

  • BlossomSB profile image

    Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 weeks ago from Victoria, Australia

    Thank you for a very interesting and perceptive analysis. Enjoyed reading it.

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