What is the meaning of the last two lines of Auden's "The Unknown Citizen?"

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the modern setting, government bureaucracy is more dominant than anything else.  Even in the most liberalized nations that are predicated upon a theoretical notion of individual freedom and rights, the apparatus of government in all of its forms is quite present.  In the poem, this notion is brought out and developed.  In the closing lines in trying to explore this relationship between modern government and its citizens, the implication of whether or not the political body actually "knows" its citizens is brought about with a sardonic tone.  In its attempt to ensure that it is efficient and deliberate with what it does, the closing lines bring to light the idea that if someone was deemed as "bad," the government would "definitely" know.  If individuals are not free and happy, the government certainly would know that.  As it seeks to reduce all individuals to an identification number and a census figure, it is almost laughable that such a wide ranging external body could actually "know"  whether its people are free or happy.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, the last two lines of the poem serve to point out quite explicitly the theme of the poem.

I believe that this is a poem about how the modern world has served to dehumanize people.  The man in the poem has no name, only numbers and letters.  He lives only in the reports of government agencies and businesses' files about him.  He has no humanity of his own.

The last two lines point out that this is what happened.  The speaker says that the man's freedom and happiness and other feelings are not important.  He is saying that these things do not exist unless some bureaucratic agency says that they do.

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!

akhilrules | Student

The last two lines show that this is the governments picture of a perfect citizen not anybody elses