Guest poem submitted by Jacob Hale Russell:
(Poem #386) The Unknown Citizen
(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 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 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 Installment 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 he 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 generation. And our teachers report that 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.
I've always enjoyed this poem as a brilliantly composed portrait of a bureaucracy taken to the excess -- the point where it dehumanizes individuals, its subjects, in the absolute. Auden meticulously selects his words to express the obsessive inanity of this mindless, mechanized State which knows its citzens only by letters and numbers, evaluates their worth with statistics, and has a formulaic standard for virtuous living. The tone of the final two lines -- a spokesperson's spin on the situation -- is both ironic and chilling. The ultimate question, of course, is whether this is a portrait of a society to come or perhaps the society we already inhabit. Jacob Russell. Auden's biography from www.poets.org: Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, in 1907. He moved to Birmingham during childhood and was educated at Christ's Church, Oxford. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Old English verse. At Oxford his precocity as a poet was immediately apparent, and he formed lifelong friendships with two fellow writers, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. In 1928, Auden published his first book of verse, and his collection Poems, published in 1930, established him as the leading voice of a new generation. Ever since, he has been admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information. He had a remarkable wit, and often mimicked the writing styles of other poets such as Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Henry James. His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically, a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse. He visited Germany, Iceland, and China, served in the Spanish Civil war, and in 1939 moved to the United States, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman, and became an American citizen. His own beliefs changed radically between his youthful career in England, when he was an ardent advocate of socialism and Freudian psychoanalysis, and his later phase in America, when his central preoccupation became Christianity and the theology of modern Protestant theologians. A prolific writer, Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Generally considered the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, his work has exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of poets on both sides of the Atlantic. W. H. Auden was a Chan, and divided most of the second half of his life between residences in New York City and Austria. He died in Vienna in 1973.