The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

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Twentieth century Western authors and poets have often examined the alienation and silence of modern life and the loss of personal identity and autonomy, accelerated by the advent of technology. Sometimes these works, particularly novels and films, project the loss of a total civilization and political system that leaves individuals helpless. Other works, such as poet W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” are less dramatic but no less telling about the path of the twentieth century, particularly after the introduction of computer-age technology.

The title of the poem itself, “The Unknown Citizen,” reminds the reader of the unknown soldiers who followed their countries’ calls, who gave their lives in defense of their countries, who died to ensure the continuity of the society for which they fought, and who stood for the bravery of all soldiers. They are honored for their deeds; only their deeds, not their names, remain as silent witness that they lived. The “Unknown Citizen,” though not a warrior, also represents the life his society values and records in his “metaphorical” Bureau of Statistics files, files that hold facts but tell only a partial story, leaving much else in silence.

“The Unknown Citizen” is dedicated “To JS/07/M/378. This Marble Monument is erected by the State.” Instead of being a monument to a named citizen, the monument is dedicated to the citizen, known to the state by numbers and statistics, not by name; he is a kind of Everyman in general, who is no man in particular. The poem then details all the supposed characteristics that the state finds important to identify JS/07/M/378 and to remember him.

JS/07/M/378 was by all accounts a model, middle-class citizen; he is even labeled “a saint” for his exemplary life, at least according to the state’s definition of “exemplary.” He “worked in a [car] factory and never got fired,” except for the war years when he served his country as expected. He was a union man who followed the rules. He was popular and never expressed “odd” views; he had an occasional drink with his friends. He subscribed to his local paper and bought the products advertised in it, as the paper and advertisers expected. He had health insurance and a normal illness. He bought modern necessities on “the Installment Plan.” He had the usual necessities for his time: “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.” He held opinions that he was supposed to hold when he was supposed to hold them. He was married and produced the expected number of children and sent them to school. As recorded by the state, he was a stereotypical model for the middle of the twentieth century.

Auden uses terms from this first wave of mass consumption for the middle class; for example, “Frigidaire,” a brand name, came to mean refrigerator for the first generation of users. Formerly, citizens may have had iceboxes for food, which looked similar to modern refrigerators, but which used daily delivered ice for food storage. The Unknown Citizen owned a phonograph, or record player, not the compact-disc players of today’s age. For him to have a car was a real consumer step-up, but because JS/07/M/378 worked in an auto factory and belonged to a union, he was probably one of the best-paid workers of his day, with all the necessities that his neighbors had or wished they had. He is remembered for what he owned and that he paid for what he owned over time.

He is no longer alive, so the state “Erected” a monument to him, celebrating the aspects of his life that the state values and that keep the state going. These aspects that the state tracks are supplied by various institutions that supposedly tell who an individual citizen is: the Bureau of Statistics, the War Department (now the Defense Department), the corporate employer, the union, the psychologists, the media, the insurance company, the product and public opinion researchers, the population experts, and the educators. Nowhere in the poem does the Unknown Citizen speak; nowhere does he define himself. He is silent.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

Auden’s word choices to describe the unknown citizen—“popular,” “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “right”—seem appropriate for a man who is considered by the state to be a “saint,” a man who lived as the powers wanted him to live, a man whose life spoke of his adherence to his society’s values. However, Auden also uses a rhyme scheme that suggests a possible glitch in the state’s assessment of the citizen’s life. Perhaps the Unknown Citizen is not in exact harmony with the state, as the statistics suggest.

For example, Auden uses rhyming lines, but he varies the rhyme so that the reader is just slightly off-balance. The first few lines begin an abab pattern, but by the sixth line Auden fails to supply a b rhyme to complement the a rhyme in the fifth line. From then on, Auden rhymes in short spurts, such as “retired” and “fired” in lines 6 and 7, “views” and “dues” in lines 9 and 10, and “Plan” in line 19 and “Man” in line 20, yet he interrupts patterns, such as having lines 8 and 13 rhyme rather than 8 and 9 and lines 18 and 21 rhyme, not 18 and 20. Just as the reader is expecting rhymes, Auden puts off the rhyme for a couple of lines. Then he inserts three lines, 25, 26, and 27, that rhyme.

This scheme points to an undercurrent of meaning that is not accounted for in the states’ facts that define this model citizen. This undercurrent becomes a flood in the last rhyming couplet, which asks two important questions that go beyond statistical information and are not addressed elsewhere in the poem: “Was he free? Was he happy?” These questions are answered in an official, statistical way: “The question is absurd:/ Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”