The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden is a satiric poem. It describes an average citizen in a government-controlled state. In many big cities, there is a monument to the Unknown Soldier that stands for the thousands of unknown soldiers who die for their country. The title of Auden’s poem parodies this. The citizen to whom the monument has been built has been found to be without any fault. He was a saint not because he searched for God but because he served the government perfectly. He did not get dismissed form his job.
He was a member of the Union and paid all his dues to the union. A report on the Union shows that it was a balance union and did not take extreme views on anything. The social psychology workers found that he was popular among his fellow workers and had a drink with them now and then. He also bought a newspaper everyday. He reached to the advertisements normally. He had good health and although he went to hospital once, he came out quite cured. The citizen was sensible about buying things on an installment basis. He had everything a modern man needed at home.
Moreover, this ideal citizen was found to be sensible in his view. When there was peace, he supported it. But when there was war, he was ready to fight. He didn’t hold his personal views on anything. He had the right number of children and he did not quarrel with the education they got. The poet now asks the important questions. Was this man free? Was he happy? No government statistics can ever answer these kinds of questions. ‘The Unknown Citizen’ is a typical Auden’s poem in that it shows the poet’s profound concern for the modern world and its problems.
A keen intelligent observer of the contemporary scene, Auden was one of the first to realize that the totalitarian socialist state would be no Utopia and that man there would be reduced to the position of a cog in the wheel. A citizen will have no scope to develop his initiative or to assert his individuality. He will be made to conform to the State in all things. It is the picture of such a citizen, in a way similar to Eliot’s Hollow Man, which is ironically presented in the poem.
Auden dramatizes his theme by showing the glaring disparity between the complete statistical information about the citizen compiled by the State and the sad inadequacy of the judgments made about him. The poet seems to say, statistics cannot sum up an individual and physical facts are inadequate to evaluate human happiness- for man does not live by bread alone. In the phrase ‘The Unknown’ the word ‘unknown’ means ordinary, obscure. So the whole phrase means ‘those ordinary, obscure soldiers as citizens of the state who laid down their lives for defending their motherland wanted name and fame, but remained unknown.
The title of Auden’s poem parodies this. Thus ‘The Unknown Citizen’ means the ordinary average citizen in the modern industrialized urban society. He has no individuality and identity. He has no desire for self-assertion. He likes to remain unknown. At the end of the poem the poet asks two questions. Was he free? Was he happy? No government statistics can ever answer these kinds of questions. By asking these questions, the poet is drawing our attention to the question of freedom and happiness. And ironically, the poet suggests that the modern man is slaver to routine and he is incapable of understanding such concepts freedom and happiness.
Therefore, such a question in this context would be ‘absurd’. Thus, this poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ is a bitter attack on modern society-its indifference towards individuality and identity. The only way for an individual to survive in a regimented society is to conform, obey and live in perpetual mental slavery. Such a creative is this ‘unknown citizen’ who is utterly devoid of any urge for self-assertion. Such a modern man is a slave to the routine, is incapable of understanding such concepts as freedom and happiness. The Unknown Citizen “The Unknown Citizen” is a poem by W. H. Auden.
Auden wrote it in 1939, shortly after moving from England to the United States, and the poem gives evidence of his culture shock when suddenly confronted with American-style chaos and consumerism. It is an ironic poem and the poet intends his satire against a society which kills a person’s individuality. Significance of the Sub-title: The sub-title to the poem “To JS/07/M/378/ This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State” alludes to the concept enforced by the government that every human being must be classified by a alpha-numeric tag to distinguish who they are, rather than being able to have their own personal identity.
The poet scoffs at humans being given alpha-numeric names when they’re already struggling for their own personal identity in a world clustered with the advancing technology. His Office Life and Social Life – Analysed: The Bureau of Statistics has found that "no official complaint" has been made against the unknown citizen. He is also described as a "modern" saint, which means that he always served the "Greater Community. " He worked in a factory before the war and he never got fired, as he satisfied his employers always. Now the poem shifts from his employment to his social life.
Even in his socialising with his friends, the unknown citizen acts with a lot of moderation and restraint. He likes "a drink," but he doesn’t drink too much and isn’t an alcoholic. Even the news media is convinced about the credentials of this citizen because he bought his newspaper every day. Moreover, he also had ‘normal’ reactions to advertisements in the newspapers. In short, he is a good American consumer. His Insurance and Consumer Statistics – Analysed: The government’s statistical coverage on this citizen now turns to the insurance sector.
He was fully insured, because he was not a risk-taker. And, even though he had insurance, he only went to the hospital once, which means he wasn’t too much of a burden on the health system. He left the hospital "cured". Consumer statisticians like Producers Research and High-Grade Living have done a little research and learned that the unknown citizen used "instalment plans" to buy expensive things. The phrase "fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan" is an ironic comment on the average citizen’s love for buying things and paying for them over a period of time.
Auden seems to criticise the modern man’s concept of living wherein we always think we need more than we really do. In the opinion of the speaker, the following lines“[He] had everything necessary to the Modern Man, A phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire”, we get the impression that the unknown citizen’s greatest accomplishment was buying things, which defines the modern man’s predicament. The Unknown Citizen – A Conformist: The "researchers into Public Opinion" find him a conformist, which means that he believed what the people around him seemed to believe.
He was like a weather vane, going whichever way the wind blew. The fact that “He was married and added five children to the population,” is a great achievement from the perspective of the State because a growing population usually helps a nation’s economy and also ensures that there are enough soldiers in case of a War (remembering the fact that this poem was written in 1939, just ahead of World War II). At the home front, the Bureau of Statistics finds him to be a good parent because he never interfered with the education of his kids which was a State-sponsored education.
Was he Free? Was he Happy? The poet ends by asking two questions – "Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard. ” This statement shows that even though the government knows each and every statistics and facts going on in one’s life, they don’t know the actual feelings or meaning to one’s life. In other words, from the perspective of the State, it is much more important that people are not unhappy, and it does not matter whether they experience personal fulfillment or not.
Conclusion: In conclusion, the world today is constantly progressing to be more technology efficient but on the other side of the spectrum, humans are striving to have their own personal identities and to be different from one another. On the contrary, the “Unknown Citizen” is in fact just following the very typical, normal, and average life style instead of being different and striving for individualism. The poem is thus a satire of standardization at the expense of individualism.