Critical Analysis of The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden

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 on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
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
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

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.