The Unknown Citizen

by W. H. Auden

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

"The Unknown Citizen" is a 1939 poem by the British-born writer W.H. Auden, composed just before he relocated to the United States. It is written as an epitaph for an unnamed man and uses various line lengths and rhyme patterns, including rhyming couplets, across its 32 lines.

 

The poem begins with an epigraph, which is a parody of those found on the "Tombs of the Unknown Soldier," which appeared in many countries following the First World War. The epigraph names the unknown citizen of the title only as JS/07M378. It explains that "This Marble Monument/Is Erected by the State," so the reader understands that what follows is imagined to be written on a tomb.

 

According to the "Bureau of Statistics," citizen JS/07M378 was somebody against whom a complaint had never been registered. Reports have been filed on his behavior, all of which concur that he "was a saint."

 

This assessment is justified because the unknown citizen served the "Greater Community" in all his actions throughout his life. Apart from during the War, when he was presumably conscripted, he spent his entire life working in a factory without being dismissed. On the contrary, his employer, "Fudge Motors Inc.," found him satisfactory.

 

The epitaph stipulates that the citizen was never "a scab or odd in his views" but was a fully paid-up member of a Union declared by the State to be "sound."

 

Psychological assessments of the unknown citizen indicate that he was a popular man among his friends and enjoyed drinking, while "the Press" notes that he purchased a daily paper and reacted in a completely normal way to all advertisements.

 

The unknown citizen was properly insured, and although he was once admitted to hospital, he recovered before leaving.

 

Two other government departments, "Producers Research and High-Grade Living," observe that the citizen understood the benefits of the "Instalment Plan" and possessed everything a modern citizen requires to live his life: "a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire."

 

The poem then moves on from the citizen's behavior to discuss his opinions. Researchers in this area agree that the citizen held "the proper opinions for the time of year." In times of peace, he favored peace, but during times of war, he fought as expected.

 

The citizen was a married man and fathered five children, which was the "right" number for a man of his age, according to "our Eugenist." He never interfered with what the children were being taught at school, indicating that he was willing to let them absorb the opinions and beliefs of the State.

 

The closing couplet of the poem invites some questions but then immediately dismisses them: it suggests that asking whether the citizen had been free and happy is "absurd":

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The poem's tone is satirical throughout, but using a rhyming couplet to close the poem lends the ending statement a certain finality, reflecting the frequent use of rhyming couplets to end scenes in Shakespeare's plays. The writers of the epitaph do not admit any debate about their conclusions.

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