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The Unknown Citizen Poem Essay Sample

The poem begins with an ironic epigraph, “To JS/07 M 378 / This Marble Monument / Is Erected by the State.”

The Bureau of Statistics and all other reports show that he will complied with his duties to “the Greater Community.” He worked in a factory and paid his union dues. He had no odd views. The Social Psychology investigators found him to be normal, as did the Press: he was popular, “liked a drink,” bought the daily paper, and had the “normal” reactions to advertisements. He was fully insured. The Health-card report shows he was in the hospital only once, and left cured.

The Producers Research and High-Grade Living investigators also showed he was normal and “had everything necessary to the Modern Man”—radio, car, etcetera. The Public Opinion researchers found “he held the proper opinions for the time of year,” supporting peace in peacetime but serving when there was war. He was married and had the appropriate number of five children, according to the Eugenicist. He never interfered with the public schools.

It is absurd to ask whether he was free or happy, for if anything had been wrong, “we should certainly have heard.”


“The Unknown Citizen” (1940) is one of Auden’s most famous poems. Often anthologized and read by students in high school and college, it is renowned for its wit and irony in complaining about the stultifying and anonymous qualities of bureaucratic, semi-socialist Western societies. Its structure is that of a satiric elegy, as though the boring, unknown citizen was so utterly unremarkable that the state honored him with a poetic monument about how little trouble he caused for anyone. It resembles the “Unknown Soldier” memorials that nations erect to honor the soldiers who fought and died for their countries and whose names have been lost to posterity; Britain’s is located in Westminster Abbey and the United States’ is located in Arlington, Virginia. This one, in an unnamed location, lists the unknown man as simply “JS/07 M 378.”

The rhyme scheme changes a few times throughout the poem. Most frequently the reader notices rhyming couplets. These sometimes use the same number of syllables, but they are not heroic couplets—no, they are not in iambic pentameter—they are often 11 or 13 syllables long, or of differing lengths. These patterns increase the dry humor of the poem.

Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” is not anonymous like the Unknown Soldier, for the bureaucracy knows a great deal about him. The named agencies give the sense, as early as 1940, that a powerful Big Brother kind of bureaucracy watches over its citizens and collects data on them and keeps it throughout one’s life. This feeling makes the poem eerie and prescient; one often thinks of the dystopian, totalitarian states found in the writings of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley or the data-driven surveillance state of today. In Auden’s context, one might think of the state-focused governments of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.

The Big Brother perspective begins from the very outset of the poem, with its evocation of a Bureau of Statistics. The man has had every aspect of his life catalogued. He served his community, he held a job, he paid union dues, he did not hold radical views, he reacted normally to advertisements, he had insurance, he possessed the right material goods, he had proper opinions about current events, and he married and had the right amount of children. It does not appear on paper that he did anything wrong or out of place. In fact, “he was a saint” from the state’s perspective, having “served the Greater Community.” The words used to describe him—“normal,” “right,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular”—indicate that he is considered the ideal citizen. He is praised as “unknown” because there was nothing interesting to know. Consider, in comparison, the completely normalized protagonist Emmet in The Lego Movie.

At the end of the poem, the closing couplet asks, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” With these last lines comes the deeper meaning of the poem, the irony that despite all of the bureaucratic data gathering, some aspect of the individual might not have been captured. It becomes clear that the citizen is also “unknown” because in this statistical gathering of data, the man’s individuality and identity are lost. This bureaucratic society, focused on its official view of the common good, assesses a person using external, easily-catalogued characteristics rather than respect for one’s uniqueness, one’s particular thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, and goals.

Interestingly, and ironically, the speaker himself is also unknown. The professionals in the poem— “his employers,” “our Social Psychology workers,” “our researchers into Public Opinion,” “our Eugenicist”— are just as anonymous and devoid of personality. While a person might be persuaded that he is free or happy, the evidence of his life shows that he is just one more cog in the faceless, nameless bureaucratic machine.

The Unknown Citizen Essay

525 Words3 Pages

The Unknown Citizen

In "The Unknown Citizen," Auden is implying that people are statistics and easily conformed to the normality of society. Throughout the poem, Auden portrays the character as being an all around normal citizen and "one against whom there was no official complaint." In lines 4 and 5, the speaker describes the character as a "saint" and "for in everything he did he served the Greater Community." He served in war, never got fired from his job, popular with his mates, and "normal in every way." Auden develops the theme by describing the character's life through the research of different bureaus, researchers, and psychology workers. Each one of these descriptions point to the same idea that the character is a…show more content…

Also, by focusing on the descriptions of the character's life, the readers become more aware of their own lives and how their lives compare to his. This makes the poem intriguing and brings a more personal affect towards the reader.
One literary device the author uses is symbolism. This poem was written in 1940. During this time period the common occupation was a factory worker. In line 8, "Fudge Motors Inc" is the factory that the character works for. Also, in line 26, the character had "a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire." These were all the things "necessary to the modern man." Auden uses these cultural symbols to accentuate the main idea of the poem. He wants the reader to realize the commonality of the character's lifestyle.
Another device that Auden uses is alliteration. In line 29, the speaker said "that he held the proper opinion for the time of year; when there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went." The alliteration, "when there was war he went" enhances the meaning of the poem because it emphasizes to the reader the type of citizen the character was and the conformity of the character.
Auden also uses visual imagery to contribute to the meaning of the poem. Almost every single line is effective in describing the character's life, his personality, and how he lived. For instance, in line 13, the "Social Psychology worker found that he was popular with his mates and liked a drink."

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