The Unknown Citizen

by W. H. Auden

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Explain the meaning of the poem "The Unknown Citizen" by W. H. Auden. 

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W. H. Auden  answers the question: “Who is the unknown citizen?” Where is the  statue dedicated to this character described as “The Unknown Citizen”? The poem was written in 1940 after Auden moved from England to the colonies [the United States].  Before World War II came to America, Auden decided to write a parody of  “The Unknown Soldier” comparing it with the non-existent unknown citizen.  

The narration of the poem is  third person point of view.  The narrator lists the reasons that this citizen is worthy of the title: the unknown citizen. It is as though the Bureau of Statistics has a guy who looks into the backgrounds of all people.  The unknown citizen had all the right parts. No one really knows him or even what he looks like.  But that does not matter since his information fits in all the little slots.

Even in Auden's time, men were becoming numbers.  The last four of the social security number; the zip code; the birthdate, the nine digit telephone number; the routing number on the checking account— for identity checks sometimes the person’s name is not even needed.  The citizen has become faceless in modern society. 

The poet’s interesting idea was important because he was worried that people were losing their identities.  Since the 1980s, it is a scary concept because clever people can steal a person’s identity, his money, and cause enumerable problems.

This poem may also be labeled as  an "elegy" which is a poem about a dead person. The poem is also satirical.  It shows what the poet thought might be the future of the individual if the government continued to pry into personal business. 

There are difficulties that an individual can face in modern society: obscurity, conventionality, and administrative control. The unknown citizen tried his best to be absorbed into the conventional accepted and approved world.

What did the bureaucratic world discover about this unknown citizen?

  • No official complaints against him.
  • This man was a saint in his behavior and conduct.
  • Everything he did was the greater good of the world.

The unknown worked in a factory as  paying union member.  He never crossed the picket lines and his compatriots thought he was a good guy. 

He liked to drink with his friends.  He bought a paper every day.  This was man who was fully insured.  His health records report that he went to the hospital once and was cured of his problem.

From his consumer’s record, he often bought on credit and paid his installment payments. He owned all of the modern conveniences. 

His opinions were those that conform to the accepted opinions.  He went along with what the government wanted: If there was a need for war, he was all for it.

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

Where there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.

The unknown citizen was married with five children. According to the genetic specialist, this was the perfect additions to the population. The children’s teachers believe that he never interfered with their education.

It does not matter if the unknown citizen felt free or happy.  If there had been anything wrong, the government would have known about it.

The poem makes the reader want to look over his shoulder to see if Big Brother is still watching from 1984.

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