W.H. Auden was a man dissatisfied with the general state of the world when, in 1939, he left his native England for the US. The title of this poem, which he wrote around this time and which was published in 1940, is a nod to the "unknown soldier," wherein the government celebrates the tomb of an unidentified soldier as a tribute to all soldiers. This tradition reached its peak during the First World War, supposedly the war to end all wars—but now it was happening again. Auden's poem suggests extreme cynicism that the government really cares about its soldiers, or indeed any of its citizens, wanting only for citizens to serve their allotted role in life.
The tone of the poem is blackly comic, the language a parody of statesmen's language when celebrating a person about whom they really know nothing. The first lines of the poem, indeed, seem to foreshadow the concerns of Orwell's 1984: "To JS/O7 M 378 / This Marble Monument / Is Erected by the State." What good is a marble monument, the lines seem to ask, erected to a man identified only by a number, issued by a body clinically called "the State"?
In praising this "unknown citizen," the speaker of the poem begins by citing the "Bureau of Statistics," commending the citizen on the count that "no official complaint" had ever been registered against him. The speaker has not inquired as to the opinions of the dead man's friends; instead, he has referred to "reports on his conduct," calling him, "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word," a "saint." The tone set here is ominous, however—what is the modern sense in which this word is meant? It seems that being a saint simply requires statistical obedience, according to official reports, and serving "the Greater Community."
The use of capitalization in the poem is careful and deliberate. These bodies—"the Greater Community," "Union," "Social Psychology," the "Press"—seem to be demarcated as official entities by these capital letters, suggesting that they are conducting a kind of formal assessment of every person with whom they come into contact. This person, the Unknown Citizen, correspondingly, is assessed according to what these people do *not* know about him, rather than what they do: he "never got fired," he "wasn't a scab," and "his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way." Provided that a man appears to be "normal," then, and does not do anything to bring himself to the attention of any of these official bodies, the government feels no need to intervene, or even to consider the person as a true individual.
There is no room for variation from the norm in the society depicted in this poem. The speaker says, without apparent irony, that the citizen had "everything necessary to the Modern Man," and then identifies these necessary things as "a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire." The commercialism in this statement is chilling—there is no mention of love, friendship, or artistry. The man held "the proper opinions," meaning that he agreed, presumably, with what the government believed, going to war when he was told to and supporting peace "when there was peace." Even his marriage is catalogued by "our Eugenist," again a chilling term given that this poem was written at the peak of Adolf Hitler's power. Auden seems to be suggesting that the ultimate end of considering human beings in this fashion, such as numbers, is eugenics.
The poem concludes with a couplet, the rhyme both emphasizing the meaning of the lines and suggesting a sense of culmination. The speaker asks, "Was he free? Was he happy?" but ultimately concludes that the question "is absurd." If he had not been, "we should certainly have heard." The irony is, of course, that throughout the poem we have been told only about this person that he never brought anything to the attention of any official bodies by misbehaving. The government has never cared whether the citizen was either free or happy; they only care that he does not cause trouble.