W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"

Updated on July 27, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

W. H. Auden

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Unknown Citizen"

The poem plays out in groups of rime with similar content. (Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The poem's subtitle establishes a "citizen" without a name, who is thus characterless and without status as an individual. The "citizen" has merely been designated by a vague sting of letters and numbers which however are not without significance for the reader: "JS/07 M 378" seems to allude to the initials of the widely known name "John Smith," the "M" likely refers to "male" while the numbers station the man in the bureaucratic brick wall of similarity and conformity.

With bitter irony, this characterless individual is not an individual in any meaningful sense of the word. That the state would erect a "marble monument" to such a brick in the wall is risible. Yet the designation "unknown citizen" is reminiscent of the term applied to those with high honor: the unknown soldier, whose remains cannot be identified, but are granted honor for service to the country.

While honoring an unknown military serviceman, who lost his life defending his country has always been a high purpose for any country, no state would erect any kind of monument to the faceless, characterless individuals who make up the designated selection called "unknown citizen" as described in this highly symbolic and ironic discourse.

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 a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment 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.

Auden reading his poem, "The Unknown Citizen"

Commentary

This widely anthologized poem portrays a pathetic character whose life has been stifled by "the State," yet who, ironically, does not seem to realize his lot in life.

First Movement: "He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be"

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.

The speaker appears to be a bureaucrat who has found it important enough to file this report regarding the unknown individual, henceforth called, "the unknown citizen."

The speaker begins by stating that the "Bureau of Statistics" had no "official complaint" against this "unknown citizen." This unknown individual seemed to have functioned bureaucratically perfect throughout his life which resulted in that life "serv[ing] the Greater Community."

This state-obliging, willing, tax-paying citizen fits well the Bidenist definition of a "patriotic citizen" who, without a doubt, favors, or at least does not offer any objection to the Obamaist "spreading the wealth around" because "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

The requirement for a proper socialist state begins with the faceless citizen remaining a willing pawn in the hands of government authority. Like sheep or lemmings they follow and never question and that makes the statist overlord rich and satisfied with that citizenry.

Second Movement: "Except for the War till the day he retired"

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.

This unknown citizen for his entire life labored in the factory or business concern called "Fudge Motor Inc." He took time off when his patriotic duty called such as serving in the "War." He unquestioningly joined the "union" and paid his dues dutifully.

This unknown citizen enjoyed friends and a drink occasionally. Such a detail demonstrates the thorough intrusion of the state upon the lives of individuals. The state has employed "Social Psychology workers" to determine the state-appropriate behavior of every aspect of every citizen's lives.

This poem is prescient in its foreshadowing the current Democratic Party (USA), which attempts to control every aspect of American lives today, from what people can eat and drink to how they use energy.

Third Movement: "The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day"

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

The unknown citizen read a daily newspaper. He responded properly to the "advertisements." Again, such a detail demonstrates the complete control the government has over this individual.

The government is glad to report that this citizen had never complaint against it, as it is unlikely that he ever composed an editorial to the newspaper, detailing his dissatisfaction with any policies. He remained content with journalism, as well as with governmental bureaucracy, and he did not speak out again the social engineering.

Fourth Movement: "Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured"

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.

This subject of the state throughout his life bought the appropriate insurance policies. His health insurance covered his hospital stay, and he left the facility "cured"—and lucky for him, he was admitted to the hospital only once.

Fifth Movement: "Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare"

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

The unknown citizen managed to procure all the modern conveniences, such as a record-player, a radio, an automobile, and even a refrigerator. Although this kind of information may be gleaned from survey companies that research such information, that the state is privy to it is alarming and unsatisfactory for a free society.

Sixth Movement: "Our researchers into Public Opinion are content"

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.

The citizen, according to "researchers into Public Opinion," always maintained ways of thinking that pleased the state. He believed that there was peace when the state declared "there was peace." But he accepted the state of war when conflict broke out.

The governmental "Public Opinion" bureau would not be pleased if the citizen had bucked the system in any way, and no doubt bureaucratic sanctions of some sort would have been applied and reported. But this citizen passed the "Public Opinion" test.

Seventh Movement: "He was married and added five children to the population"

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.

This citizen's family life also continued to please the state: the man took a wife and produced the appropriate number of children. That he did not "interfer[e] with their education" would be a blessing for the state, and of course, for the teachers unions.

Eighth Movement: "Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd"

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Because this "unknown citizen" has been described as a non-thinker and a completely unfeeling "individual, the inquiry into his status of freedom and happiness demonstrates the irony of the situation. And yet, the final comment adds a further layer of ironic humor.

Because the bureaucratic offices had never heard any complaint from the man, they assume he was, in fact, free and happy, or at least thought himself to be thus. They reason that if anything were wrong, they would have heard.

Of course, the reader of this piece is painfully aware of the blandness and the dullness that the state has foisted on this "citizen." Following sheeplike the dictates of a faceless state was the status against which the Founding Fathers of the United States of America struggled to form the kind of government which would allow the most freedom for every citizen.

Auden View of FDR Socialism

W.H. Auden immigrated from England to the United States in 1939. He experienced the stifling effects of the New Deal legislation of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. The creeping socialistic policies were beginning to transform the once free nation into a ghetto of socialism. It has been calculated that those policies prolonged the Great Depression by as much as seven years.

Once a country where the citizen was free to develop his talents and interests, the socialist policies of the FDR administration were beginning to stifle that character, placing the individual into a bureaucratic wall. The poet's dissatisfaction with this socialist trend plays out masterfully in this poem, "The Unknown Citizen."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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