The Unknown Citizen Theme

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

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

((Too long for 1 post.))

Post I

The Unknown Citizen, this multileveled and complex poem by W.H. Auden, is usually described by its surface level of meaning, that being that the "state" of some "future" time has reduced individuals to a collection of data and numbers. However, there are too many references to the America of Auden's present day life to fully justify a label of futuristic, and there are too many references to "standard of living" particulars to fully justify analyzing it as solely a diatribe against the "state." In addition, the "state" provides the poem with a surprise ending.

W. H. Auden was a York-born Englishman (1907) who became an American citizen in 1946 after having lived in America from 1939; he moved to Austria in 1958, which is where he lived until his death in 1973. Therefore, the differences between American English and British English sentence stress and word-syllable stress will be apparent and significant in his poetry and, in fact, do enter into comprehending the meaning of "The Unknown Citizen" because it relates to rhythm, and Auden's rhythm underscores his meaning. 

This poem is often described as free verse but actually it is anapest with liberal variations. The triple beat rhythm begins in the title and carries through to the last line. This is worth mentioning in regard to understanding the poem because the anapest triple beat underscores the ironies and the surprise (almost tragic surprise, really) of the poem. Auden is satirizing his present day post-World War II democracies that had developed "progressive" means, based on Social Darwinism, of taking care of--and tracking the care of--their citizens. "JS/07 M 378" isn't just a presage of what is to come, it is an ironic tribute to what was, from passport numbers to Social Security numbers.

The anapest rhythm lilts along in an ironic and a self-satisfied way, not in a sinister or a cold and heartless way. This is important all throughout but especially in the last few lines. The two major ironies are emphasized by the lilt (again, Auden undertakes liberal variations). The first of the major ironies is that all the huge efforts that go into finding out about JS/07 M 378--the Bureaus, the polls, the researchers, etc.--all end at last in the "absurd." The second major irony is that the tools designed purportedly for safety and liberty are in reality the tools of anonymity and restriction. Two of these tools, according to Auden's The Unknown Citizen, are the "Greater Community" and "teachers" in "education."

Post II below (I hope)

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Post II

In addition to these ironies, in his satire, Auden highlights opposing measures of the progress of JS/07 M 378 through life. One of these measures is represented by good behavior in the factory; in a sound Union (as opposed to a trouble making Union); proper conduct within his Union (e.g., not being a "scab," which is an anti-union worker); the proper beliefs about and participation in war and peace; and the correct absorption of propaganda from the daily Press (remember, the press played a big role in the Cold War for all countries involved). An opposing measure, perhaps seen as the reward or pay-off for the first measure, is JS/07 M 378's standard of living. He bought goods on the Installment Plan (monthly payments for large, otherwise unaffordable purchases); he had a phonograph for records, "a radio, a car and a frigidaire" (the original refrigerator). One of these opposing measures reflects conformity and party line, the other represents wealth, prosperity, progress and ostensible freedom.

In the end, the narrator, a representative of the "state," which has access to all levels of data collection and analysis, asks what the "state" thinks of as purely rhetorical questions about freedom and happiness and dismisses them out of hand as "absurd." The surprise, a sad surprise really, is in the last line: "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." The surprise is that the "state" actually, truly expected to have heard about unhappiness and restraints to freedom (1) in the society pictured (reflecting 1946) and (2) through the means established and exercised. In summary, "It's a good life, Charlie Brown," as long as you don't attend to the background framework and the rigidity; as long you look only at the popularity and cars and phonographs and radios and purchases on the Installment Plan. (Maybe we should have attended to this poem a little more carefully in 1946.)

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It seems to me that a main idea of the poem is to bring to light the increase in standardized practices of government.  The title is meant to be a takeoff of "The Unknown Soldier," someone of whom we might not know but someone for whom we match a  identity that is shrouded in patriotism and "the nation."  Auden's poem sees this same level of anonymity, but in the form of the state.  The Bureau of Statistics viewed the individual as "a saint" because the citizen was unknown, and someone that fell in line with the goals of the government's machinery.  At this point, Auden might be making a strong statement about the nature of power in this governmental setting.  Power comes from the top down, and perhaps, it should come from the bottom up, where individuals are not merely seen as statistics and faceless beings, but rather as people who have needs and demand more of their government and community.  In the conclusion of the poem, the state is able to deem the citizen as "free" and "happy" because "if anything had been wrong, we certainly would have heard."  In this closing, one sees that the main idea of the poem is that the large nature of government seeks to reduce individuals to statistics, and in order for power to be asserted, individuals have to find a way to be distinctive, to possess voice, and to represent a state of being that is more than the existence dictated by the "Bureau of Statistics."

coachingcorner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is ironic that the ideas and themes presented in 'The Unknown Ctizen' by W H Auden are starting to become almost even more relevant to us in our internet world than they were in Auden's own time, devoid as it was of laptops, iphones and identity chip tagging. Never has it been more possible for States to hold more information about its citizens private and public lives. Auden was almost heralding the 'age of Big Brother.' And we don't complain! Are we like the 'saint' for not complaining - is this because we don't see anything to complain about - we are complicit in our own captivity. There are some birds like parrots that live long healthy lives in cages. Now, states can know which websites we visit, what we buy there, what we buy when the forecast is wet, what barbie stuff will appeal to us when the forecast is hot,companies can put targeted ads on the pages we view 'specially for US' (that's scary! but do we do anything? No - many of us think it's a small price to pay for the instant convenience of the internet, of the property security of cctv and the health and medical records that bring down our insurance costs.) If something is wrong - surely we will say?

parkerlee eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main idea I suppose is that non-commital people deserve the insignificance of their lives. That is to say that people who "don't want to get involved" in life do just that - they stay on the perimeter of the action, watching the parade go by but never taking part. They never make a real contribution to anything and therefore live and die unheeded.

A second criticism focuses rather on the society which has produced these kinds of people. A person's environment also decides whether he or she will be a contributing citizen or not.

lit24 | Student

The politicians of every nation express their respect and honor perfunctorily to the memories of the martyrs who had laid down their lives in safeguarding the country by building an impressive monument dedicated to the 'Unknown Soldier,' and visiting this monument occasionally to place a wreath on it. This is a charade which became popular especially after World War I.

Auden's ironic poem "The Unknown Citizen" sarcastically suggests that the anonymous ordinary citizen also deserves a similar monument for conforming exactly to the rules and regulations of a mediocre modern civilization. Just like how the monument of the 'unknown soldier' will never reveal the true feelings of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives in serving their country, the modern state will never know, leave alone care whether the 'unknown citizen' was free and happy:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The poem is a bitter satire against  modern forms of government whose only aim is that all its citizens conform to its sterile norms. The  'unknown' citizen who is only given a number - JS/07 M 378 - sacrifices his unique personality  by abiding by the norms of the state to 'serve the Greater Community.'  By doing so he is canonized by the state which honors him with a marble monument!