Last Updated September 6, 2023.
"The Unknown Citizen" is a product of its time and of W.H. Auden's dissatisfaction when he left Britain for the United States in 1939. The poem's title and the epigraph it opens refer to the tombs of "unknown soldiers" that appeared worldwide after the First World War. This war was intended to end war for all time, but in 1939, war broke out again. Auden's tone generally suggests disbelief that any State cares about its soldiers or other citizens.
The poem is darkly humorous in tone, with its jaunty rhyme scheme contrasting with its very real concerns. The opening lines introduce the real problem:
To JS/O7 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State.
Any monument might be expected to use a person's name at least, but the citizen commemorated here does not have a name or even any named relatives or friends. Instead, he is commemorated by the State, as if the government knows more about him than anyone else -- while knowing nothing at all about his inner life.
The poem states that "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word," the citizen is a saint, implying that in the modern world, being a saint means embodying conformity and obedience to "the Greater Community" and the government. The citizen does not get a chance to speak for himself, although his employer, Fudge Motors Inc., is named. In many ways, he is defined by what he is not: he was never fired; he was not "a scab," he was not "odd in his views" and did not interfere with his children's education.
Auden uses capitalization throughout the poem, similar to comic writers of his time, such as Nancy Mitford and P.G. Wodehouse, adding to the sense of parody. He describes a seemingly endless number of bodies, such as the "Press," "Social Psychology workers," "Producers Research," and "High-Grade Living." These seem to be intended as a critique of the nonsensical departments that increasingly exist in all governments. Still, more chillingly, they are not differentiated from "our Eugenist," who is also considered a legitimate branch of the State.
In the world of the Unknown Citizen, deviation from the norm is not allowed. What is necessary for his life is "a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire." This is a very commercialistic outlook: the Modern Man does not need love, friends, or an inner life. He only needs to hold "proper opinions" and do as he is told.
At the end of the poem, a rhyming couplet adds an element of finality to the State's conclusions:
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
The speaker does not want to entertain these questions superficially because the government knows so much that they would already be aware if there were any "complaints." However, the State does not know anything about the citizen's happiness or inner life. Despite all their research bodies, they have never pondered these questions. They only want to know whether their citizens behave as they are told to.