Unknown Citizen W.H. Auden
The Unknown Citizen is a satirical poem by the poet W.H. Auden in 1939. It is based on a regular citizen or a common man in a state controlled by the government. Auden in the poem describes a citizen for whom a monument has been erected as an example of a citizen with no faults. Auden in the poem critiques modern society and its functioning.
He describes that the man had been found by different institutions to be a person who pays all his dues, belongs to a union who has no extreme views, is friendly with his co-workers, is hardly ever sick, is in good charge of his finances, does not hold any personal views on anything never supports war but is ready to give it all when called to fight a war, has the right number of children and o forth. But in the last two lines of the poem, the narrator asks whether all the description suggests that the ‘Unknown citizen’ is happy. The sources of this information are the statistics which do not reveal the happiness of a person. Auden tries to depict that in the totalitarian socialist state, there will be no utopia, the individual would be just a part of the crowd.
The epitaph is our initiation into the reading of the poem. The poet uses it to set the stage for action, that is to say, to explain to the readers that the poem is about to be very dramatic and Undo like in nature. The group of numbers at first do not make sense to the readers, but the next line, ‘This monument is erected by the State’ seems to give a context that it is like a memorial for someone, who this person is, is still unknown. The use of the word ‘State’ without any particular name has a very ominous and authoritative feel to it. The readers somewhat understand that perhaps it is a number to denote a person, but this lack of a proper name both gives a picture that the person has no unique persona and is perhaps a reference to the numerous tombs built of soldiers in the time for their participation and sacrifice in the war. It is ironic because these soldiers wanted a name for the life they laid down, but all they received was a collective ‘unknown’ memorial.
Summary of Unknown Citizen
These lines finally answer the readers’ questions as to who is the monument for. The use of the words ‘He was found by the Bureau of Statistics’ first alerts the audience as to why he was ‘found’ by the Bureau of Statistics. The next few lines about ‘no official complaint’ and all ‘conduct agree’ then tells us that he has been following all the rules. He is given the title of a ‘saint’ in the modern sense because whatever he has done has served the ‘Greater Community’. This line makes the readers perceive that may be the unknown citizen has done a great deal for society. Up till now, none of these deeds is revealed and this is what makes these lines very important to the readers; for until now, we are assuming that hid deeds are heroic.
These lines are representative of the effect of a totalitarian state. ‘Our research into Public Opinion is content’ reflects the invasiveness of the state in the actions of its citizen. The censorship and monitoring of the thoughts is to avoid any rebellion. The state is somehow shown to have been successful in their control as they can see that the man who they are showing as an example on observation was found to have ‘held the proper opinions for the time of the year’. ‘Proper opinions’ again is an implication to the agreeable narrative and thoughts which are allowed to the public. The lost individuality is showcased through the lines ‘When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.’ These lines by the poet also unravel an important point about asking questions, for if the public never questions, the state has free reigns to do whatever they please. The war referred to here could be both the World War I or World War II which had broken out at the time of this poem’s conception.
These lines are the ultimate climax of the poem. After having described the characteristics of the ‘Unknown citizen’, Auden asks the readers whether all this information which could be statistically collected is, in fact, enough to judge whether a person is happy or not. He himself admits that the question is absurd, which is also a reference to the psyche which the wars and the totalitarian states have on the minds of the common people. The question ‘Was he free?’ reflects the level of the pervasiveness of the government into the lives of the citizens; a government which collects all the information of the public. Auden comments on the structure of the political socialist state which groups the people together and diminishes their individuality. The last line is the final critique of the modernist society, it is equally a sad and chilling reminder of the fact that the humanist element is certainly lost in the state, for the government is relying on statistics to judge human emotions.