Give a critical appreciation of "The Unknown Citizen" by W. H. Auden.  

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

W. H. Auden, an English author, wrote this poem while living in the United States.  “The Unknown Citizen” is a satirical poem based on the very serious military unknown soldier which is a tribute to those soldiers who died fighting for their country could not be identified. 

The title establishes the subject of the poem but  is never mentioned again. The poem is supposedly written on a statue somewhere built by the state. The poem is intended to show a humorous approach to the modern world of 1938 which takes itself too seriously.


The point of view is third person with the narrator including himself in the poem by using some first person pronouns: our Eugenist; our teachers. The speaker is someone who works for a fictional government who makes decisions that impact lives that he has never or will never meet.  

Use of Literary Devices

The poem uses few literary devices other than it is a parody for the pretense of celebrating a life of a man that does not exist.  It does rhyme with the rhyme scheme  varying throughout the poem.  The only metaphor that is obvious is the unknown citizen compared to a saint. Called a modern saint, it is apparent that this is a facetious statement since he appears to be just an ordinary man.

Ironically like the Big Brother concept, the poem predicts or even warns about the future that could have  many organzations that watch over and check on citizens.  The unknown citizen is declared a saint because of his behavior and lack of breaking the rules. Part of the poem’s irony comes from the list of accomplishments of the citizen which are not really achievements at all.  They are an ordinary life.   


Here are the things he did to merit his stance:

  • The unknown citizen conducted himself for the greater good working well in a large industry and was never fired.
  • popular among his peers.
  • Read the newspaper every day and paid attention to the advertising
  • Insured and had health care
  • Borrowed money and paid it back in installments
  • Fought in the war
  • Married with just the right number of children
  • Never interfered with the children’s education

Then the poet asks the sardonic questions:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong we should certainly have


Did anyone ask the man about his feelings or what he wanted?  Was the man free to live his life without the interference of the government? These are the real questions that the poet is asking.

The statue that supposedly built really celebrates the ordinary man who does not want to cause any problems and follows the accepted pattern for a man's life.  The poet  really does not want man to be like the unknown citizen but more independent and creative.