What examples of irony can be found in "The Unknown Citizen"? Are there specifc clues to remind us that the poet is speaking ironically? What about the citizen's attitude toward war?
"The Unknown Citizen" is a satirical poem that cuttingly criticizes the idea of a so-called Nanny State that collects every conceivable number and statistic about its citizens without ever understanding any of them as human beings.
Our citizen, we know, has been a soldier—"Except for the war, till the day he retired/He worked in a factory and never got fired"; "When there was peace, he was for peace/when there was war, he went." The citizen's view of war, then, is, the Bureau of Statistics believes, in accordance with their own. The irony is that this is not a true interpretation of the facts at all. The title of the poem recalls the "unknown soldier" tombs with their ever-lit flames in France, held up as examples of patriotic soldiers who died for their country out of love—but, of course, the soldiers are unknown. We cannot ever know their attitudes toward the wars they died in, and we cannot interpret them to have been "for the war" simply because "when there was war, [they] went." The same is true of the citizen in Auden's poem.
Indeed, the Bureau of Statistics and their ilk seem incapable of considering a Modern Man to have any needs beyond the physical. There is cutting irony in the statement that the citizen "had everything necessary to the Modern Man / A gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire." The citizen has, in short, everything the government and corporations have sold to him, but there is no mention of his emotional wellbeing. We know that he "was married and contributed five children to the population," but this statement on his marriage is the only reference to it, and it is described as if the citizen were part of a factory line, marrying to produce offspring to serve society. We know that the man was psychologically sound in that "his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way"—that is, he bought what corporations wanted him to buy and behaved as the government wanted him to behave. The reference to the Eugenist, stating that five was "the right number [of children] for his generation," is particularly chilling, as we are reminded of the sterile calculations of eugenics, which dehumanize the very people they focus on. The ultimate result of eugenics was, in the mid twentieth century, the Holocaust.
Auden's poem underlines the fact that a government can collect as many statistics as it wants, analyzing every aspect of a person's life, and yet never know anything about that person. The citizen remains unknown because the all-seeing State knows nothing of his beliefs, thoughts, or feelings, and yet the government believes they "should certainly have heard" if "anything had been wrong." "Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd." The final irony here is that neither the government in question, nor we as the readers, know the answer, and therefore the question is absurd to each of us for different reasons. "We know everything about him," the government seems to say, "so he must have been happy." The reader hears: "in fact, we know nothing about him at all." The unknown citizen could have been anyone—he is a statistic.
Auden titles the poem "The Unknown Citizen," yet the subtitle clearly identifies a man identified by combination of letters and numbers. The incredible amount of statistical information about this man, who represents the vast middle class in mid-20th century, assures the State that they knew all they needed to know. They label the man a "saint"; he did all the right things, from joining a good union to having the right number of children to buying the applicances everyone wants (frigidaire, phonograph)
"When there was war, he went," according to the poem. The man fulfilled his duty, but nothing here suggests patriotism or enthusiasm. His actions are seen as robot-like, but of course, he's a human being. The State, however, has never considered if he is "free" or "happy." In fact, "the question is absurd" because his emotional state is of no concern to them. They're convinced if anything had been wrong, they would have known because of the statistics they gather. Ironically, none of the data they collect can possibly measure the man's personality.