The Unknown Citizen’ by W. H. Auden

(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 of his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of the 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 of 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 that 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 Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of the 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 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.

This is the first poem that I have posted on request, and I would like to say that I am more than happy to take requests; I like a challenge, and I also really want to write about poems that interest you, dear readers.

The unknown citizen, when I first read its title and opening epigraph, reminded me of ‘The Tomb of the Unknown soldier’ in Paris, and the nameless graves of northern France. The sight of all those unnamed dead, remembered only in their capacity as soldiers, is of course unspeakably tragic, but I find there to be also something quite estranging there, because there are no names, no faces, no stories. Each of those men had a story that no statistic, rank or number could tell, and the same is true with The unknown citizen.

But I’m getting the tone all wrong. Auden’s poem is humorous, and satirical; it is the voice of the authorities ‘summing up’ a man’s life by statistics. It is bureaucracy gone mad. It is a tribute, by the “State” (with its ominous capital ‘S’) to an apparently satisfactory member of its population. The voice in this poem, though humorous, is also an unsettling one… almost ‘Big Brother-like” in its self-satisfied, false omniscience.

The poem starts by informing us that this unknown citizen was exemplary, in that “no official complaint” was ever made against him, that he was a “saint” for serving the “Greater Community”, being a soldier, and never getting fired from his factory job. He had sufficiently “ordinary” views as to never upset anything, “paid his dues” and occasionally socialised with his “mates” for “a drink”… like a good little consumer. The poem goes on to tell us that he read the newspaper every day, and had “normal” reactions to the advertisements”. There is a catalogue of information here, but by the end of the poem we realise that we still know nothing about this man; nothing that matters about the person has been recorded. The citizen remains “unknown” — he has been dehumanised — and this is a seriously dangerous situation being described, if you think about what was happening in Germany at the time Auden was writing this in 1939.

I think that the rhyme scheme of this poem (which you will notice is the simplest imaginable: ABAB etc.) adds to the satirical tone of the poem. Auden is very clever in the way he uses this almost sing-song rhyme scheme to add to the effect he creates. There is something trite about this rhyming voice, and over-conventional… and something sickening in its false-benevolence.

We continue to be bombarded with uninteresting information about this unknown citizen. He was “fully insured”, and conformed to buying all the modern appliances and comforts that were advertised to him. He had the “proper opinions” at the right time, and “added five children to the population”. All of this information is delivered with humour, for example, Auden writes about the five children, “our Eugenist says it was the right number for a parent of his generation”.

At the end of the poem, a question is posed: “Was he free? Was he happy?” But the questions are dismissed quickly as “absurd”, for, “Had anything been wrong, we would surely have heard.” This is a very cutting and ironic-toned ending to the poem, which so effectively evokes the idea of the sort of direction many feared society was headed in Auden’s day (just look at Orwell and Huxley’s distopian novels). Auden wrote this piece soon after he moved to New York from England (in ’39).

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh