The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden
A Critical Analysis of the Poem
Wystan Hugh Auden was an American poet of British origin, who was born in York, England in 1907. He studied in Christ Church, Oxford and in his youth was influenced by poets like Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. His first collection of poems titled "Poems" was privately published in 1928, but it was in 1930 when a second collection called "Poems"(with a different set of poems) was published that he came to be known for his ability to write on current topics and in many verse forms. He carved a niche for himself among Modern poets. He travelled to Germany, Iceland, China and also served in the Spanish Civil war. These journeys broadened his intellectual horizon and the experiences provided him a sound base for his writings. In fact, his poetry portrays a longing , a journey, a quest. In 1939 he moved to America and became an American citizen. It was here that his thinking changed from socialism to Christianity and theology. He was a celebrated playwright, an essayist and editor too. His works exuded great influence on both sides of the Atlantic. He died in 1973 in Vienna, Austria.
In the poem "The Unknown Citizen" Auden has very aptly described the life of a modern man, a faceless, assembly line produced entity and has also described modern society where any aberration to the rule is frowned upon. This poem is written in blank verse, the tool of modern poets which has no rhyme , no metre ,to express their angst against society. Blank verse is a form of rebellion against the accepted norms of verse which were prevalent during the previous eras. The poet uses satire to caricature the life of "The citizen", who is just a numerical on the population register. He is supposed to lead a life which is to be led by a million other beings. In fact, one can catch a glimpse of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier where the name of a person who has laid down his life for his country does not even merit a mention.
Auden has perfectly used this literary form to create a picture of the Orwellian society where Big Brother, i.e. the government keeps a tab on everything an individual does, right from his birth to his death. He is registered by a number, no name because a name would give him an identity. He is a record in the Bureau of Statistics His existence on earth is monitored by different government agencies. While reading the poem one gets a feeling of a communist/socialist society where each person’s contribution to larger good of the community is got be his/her only goal, where deviating from the beaten track shall be noted and maybe, punished. The citizen in question did whatever was expected of him and therefore in the "modern sense" was a saint. He did not create any trouble for anyone, did the right thing at the right time, he went to war when it was demanded of him and came back to work after the war. He did not use his opinion to influence anyone, not even himself. In fact he did not think at all. He fulfilled all the criteria that portray him as a successful man. His house had all the modern gadgets of that era, right from a radiogram to a refrigerator and yes, the right number of children too. So regulated was his life that he responded to advertisements in the correct manner. He went through life like a zombie and so the state rewards him with an epitaph. The reader has a feeling of invasion of privacy by the state, which is very much a part of modern day life, whether we like it or not. It is, as if Auden had a premonition of what modern day life would be like. We, in the 21st century too, lead a similar life, though we hardly realize it. Nobody is bothered about an individual’s happiness; in fact the word is fast becoming synonymous with material acquisitions. He very rightly asks "Was he free? Was he happy?", because these feelings have really become outdated.
The portrayal of an individual in today’s society by Auden is rather scary because we have become immune to all those feelings that were meant to set us apart as human beings, the best amongst God’s creations. We have all lost our identity and are, let’s face it, a part of a faceless crowd.