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The Unknown Citizen -- W H Auden

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.
-- W H Auden
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

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.

101 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

amitc said...

I first read this poem when I was very young. To be sure
I didn't fully understand the import of every phrase, but
nevertheless I enjoyed it. I recall sensing depth in this
poem. At that time, I wasn't interested enough in poetry
to know Auden's name, so the poet was forgotten.

Until now. Thanks for bringing this marvellous poem back
into my life.

- Amit.

rhines757 said...

This poem by W.H Auden is an obvious jab at society and it's governing
population. The author writes if the citizen was " Was he happy?
The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have
heard." Basically, this conveys to the reader that the author thinks that a
person is only known if something bad should happen; that is, if one is
involved in a scandal, or has a wrongdoing inflicted upon him. Irony is also
seen in the fact that the citizen is "unknown," for it seems that this man
has done everything right, and for this he should be commended. Auden makes
his view towards society clear through "The Unknown Citizen," that is, that
one is only recognized if, somehow or another, his name is tarnished.

Paul Murphy said...

Instead of this poem being a criticism of our society, I believe that Auden
is criticizing communist or marxist society!  Afterall, "The Unknown
Citizen.....served the Greater Community"  from the sounds of it, this
citizen did everything he was told (he worked in a factory, was for peace
during peace-time, went to war at war-time)

Paul Murphy

JFWF1 said...

I think Auden's poem is more like the facism of the US govt today.

Dela said...

In WH Auden's poem, the speaker is the governement or the state. It views the individual as statistics, figures, numbers, data. The time period in which Auden lived/wrote this seems to affect his protest that's protrayed in this poem. For example, during the Great Depression, social security is coming into use, and althought it is great, it greatly diminished the individual into numbers that can be tracked down. Thus, I think Auden is criticizing how a democracy is allowing the state to become more and more powerful to the point where it's morphing into some kind of dictatorship. Moreover, the "unknown" citizen is praised and used as an example in the story shows how the so-called democratic society encourages its people to become average. No, even more than just average. The state wants the people to cease to be individuals with their originality in actions and thought, their pride for their work, and become a unit in the Greater Community, or the bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is unlike others because it revolves around technology. It could not 'live' without technology, because it is technology that has allowed the governemnt to become so powerful and almighty. Thus, technology has taken over the lives of individuals; reducing them to mere numbers that is part of the Machine, or the bureaucracy.

robin wilson said...

I think Auden is against any unthinking bureaucracy - soviet, fascist or
capitalist. His point is that people who are good at measuring things often
fall into the trap of assuming:

* things which can be measured easily are more important than
* things which can be measured with difficulty and much more important than
* things that cannot be measured at all.

In practice, for most people, our personal priorities are just the other way

The sin lies not in measuring things, but in ignoring things like freedom
and happiness that are very hard to measure.

Robin Wilson.

edward chen said...

I believe Auden is trying to say that a person should not try to satisfy
everybody else his entire life, since he "satisfied his employers", "wasn't
a scab or odd in his views" and "his reactions were normal in every way".

The title also fits this idea because if a person strives to satisfy
everybody else his whole life, nobody will really know him which leaves him


My view might be wrong, but I think this is a new way to see Audens opinion.

FattyBones said...

This poem is named to echo the Unknown Soldier monument at the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington DC.

It is not a satire on bureaucracy, but an attempt to humanize the Unknown Soldier.
( \_________/ )

Madisin said...

i think this poem , even tho that it talks about an unknown citizen, he is actually not 'unknown.' this is because he has been checked by so many people and groups (over 10) , so how can he be unknown if so many people spent time studying him?
just my thoughts~

sam said...

This poem by W.H. Auden reminds me of a girl named Monique.

I'd love to tap her one day. Maybe in the not too distant future. None the
less, she thinks that statistics and numbers are the dehumanisation of


She also tastes like Vanilla. <3 U

Ezequiel said...

To answer to that question, Stan Smith, about the number on the epitaph, I'm almost 100% sure that it is referring to the tombsonte and how it indicates how depersonalized the state has become--everyone is simply a number to the state.

Justin Gibson said...

Just wanted to let you know there's a small typo:

"That he held the proper opinions for he time of year;"

should read:

"That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;"

Minor, but just wanted to let you know.



A... said...

w.Audhen fucked her wife and a unknown citizen was born
my opinion

Anonymous said...

You are all the plague of this forum.

brad said...

Brad says, alot of different views on this poem, however its obvious the speaker isnt praising him and the citizen is far from heroic.
The number is just to stress that the citizen is anomynous. As well as, the citizen is very self centered and is getting mock compliments from the speaker. keep it simple guys

Anonymous said...

i hated it

Anonymous said...

pretty interesting! :3

Emily said...

A poem is never so easy and simple like what you see, Brad. No offense, but it's how most poems go. Poets imply their ideas and thoughts behind their poems, and have readers have fun reading them and guessing what would be some possible "answers" to the poem.
It's truly interesting how so many organizations checked on this unknown citizen since he's so "unknown" and average. I think this poem is conveying how the author disagree with the government's ways dealing with its people, like with statistic numbers and technology. Look it up in wikipedia. It's also part of the descriptions there of "The Unknown Citizen."

telemoonfa said...

I think the poem encourages us to be family oriented. And I think the poem encourages us to shift decision-making power as far away from Washington bureaucrats and as close to the people as possible. Say no to socialism and say no to most of Obama's policies. This is a classic poem. I particularly love the line, "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint." Auden warns us of a world in which the arbiter of morality has shifted from religion to the State.

Anonymous said...

this poem is a brilliant piece of writing written by W H Auden. i love it a lot.

Anonymous said...

its the worst poem

Anonymous said...

I believe that people that don't have anything interesting to add should remain silent. Unfortunately, we live in a world of vocal idiots.

mohit said...

this poem is a beautiful satire on d present day society of common or so called ideal shows us how a common man's life is so predictable,monotonous and strict.he is no right to think different and came out wid his own thoughts nd ways but to live under d fixed nd plans ways as decided by d government. the man is unknown because he has lived his life in the ideal way.because no complaint is against him this shows how only differnt thinking people came known to the society and government.also,government evaluate the people on their statistics and number they are jst concerned wid their routine data and activities but not all wid the so called weird questions of a man being happy or free.!!!dis is target to our strict and absolute government that gives no space for the free thinking of man and society!!!

Anonymous said...

Actually,in this poem,the poet critices the government to be so selfish and self-centered thet it has built a monument in memory of a person,through which they gained benefits from and want the rest of the people to follow in his footsteps and make him as their rolemodel in spending their lives.the goverment names it's own organisations and institutions in order to praise itself and wants every citizen to be raisin no objections against them, take all the burdon to themselves and serve the greater community in every way,so that they could enjoy their luxurious lives with comfort.

Anonymous said...

what type of verse does this poem use? free? blank? prose?

Anonymous said...

i really love this poetry couse it talks about how these government deals with its citizens.there is irony and many criticisms .i hope that those politicions would read it .

Anonymous said...

The poem is talking about a society in which people have become like pre-programmed automatons. It really has nothing specifically to do with Obama's policies or with being family-oriented. The purpose of reading it is for people to perceive society with a more open mind and realize that the dehumanization transcends a particular time period. It alludes to the frightening saying we often hear that "history repeats itself." If we are not aware of what is happening and don't fight against it, it'a vicious cycle. We need to stand up as individuals and start to turn things around.

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