The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”