The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden: Poem, Summary & Analysis

Shortly after immigrating to America in 1939, the British poet W.H. Auden composed "The Unknown Citizen." The poem was written in honour of a guy who recently passed away and who lived what the government considered to be an exemplary life. It is a type of sarcastic elegy. Really, this life seems to have been perfectly mundane—exemplary only in the sense that this individual never questioned or deviated from societal norms.

Text of the Poem

(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. 

- W.H. Auden

Simple Summary

The State erected this memorial made of marble to honour JS/07 M378. The Bureau of Statistics reports that no one has ever filed an official complaint against him. The other accounts of his actions all state that he was, in essence, the ideal citizen because he carried out all of his societal obligations. With the exception of his time spent serving in the War, he worked at the same job his entire life until he retired. Fudge Motors Inc., his workplace, had no issues with him. He donated to his Union (which, as far as we can tell, posed no threat) and had a completely normal attitude on life and politics. Our psychology department also found that his buddies enjoyed spending time with him. The Official Media reported that he routinely purchased newspapers and replied to advertisements as was expected. He had the right insurance, and according to our official medical documents, he just required one hospital stay. He supported the State's vision, according to the departments in charge of arranging society, and he had everything a modern person would require, including a record player, radio, automobile, and refrigerator. If it was a calm, he approved, but he also went to war when we wanted him to, according to our Public Opinion department. He always held the correct perspective on the important subjects. According to our government official who seeks to maximise the gene pool, he had a wife and five children, which contributed the right number of fresh people to society. Without interfering with their instruction, he let the teachers of the kids do their jobs. We would have known if there was something wrong with him, so asking if he was free or happy is ludicrous.

Analysis

Written by Auden to underline the importance of the individual and the increasingly faceless bureaucracy that can develop in any nation with any form of government, be it left-wing or right-wing, "The Unknown Citizen" is both sarcastic and unsettling. The poem has a cold, clinical tone; the speaker is probably a well-dressed official who is conveying the state's detachment. The unidentified citizen is reduced to little more than a number and a string of letters; there is no indication of a name, a birthplace, or loved ones.

The modern citizen was conditioned and brainwashed by those in power to stay conformist who never questioned the authorities and stayed as a saint to serve the greater purpose as manufactured through mass media propaganda and status quo by the modern state.


Social Pscyholagy department reported on his background, and found him "normal" as per standards of normalcy as maintained by those in power. He bought a newspaper everyday, that is, he digested the propaganda and endorsed all the biases. He had no adverse reaction to advertisements too.

This resident has one of the cleanest homes in the larger community, therefore there is some effective corporate brainwashing at work here. Although he lacks critical thinking skills, he is the kind of man you want to live next door. He maintains his possessions and abides by all societal norms. This man is a typical Joe, a model citizen who has grown accustomed to routine and won't challenge it unless the government asks him to participate in military operations.

The speaker refers to the Eugenist, a scientist who studies eugenics and this man's family's genetic composition, and declares stolidly that his five children were the "correct amount" for his generation. The speaker is aware that individuals in positions of authority have taken all necessary steps to undermine the citizenry, with persuasive propaganda serving as their primary method. This is how they eliminate dissent, social discontent, freedom of speech, and critical thought.


Therefore, Auden's poem serves as a reminder of the potential risks present in any kind of administration or bureaucracy, wherever they may be found. Individuals may lose their distinctive identities and become non-persons who have no voice or influence over how things are run.

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