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.)