The Unknown Citizen
The Unknown Citizen
W. H. Auden 1940
“The Unknown Citizen” appeared in the collection, Another Time, in 1940. The poem is intensely ironic and reflects Auden’s earlier work in which social, political and economic concerns dominated his texts. It reveals a satirical portrait of a unknown citizen, a citizen who represents the average man and his lack of personal identity within modern society. Dehumanizing institutions as well as complacency on the part of the citizenry are to blame for the lack of individuality. The poem appears to protest against a world in which systems interested in scientific data fail to capture the human quality of life, and mass organizations and commercial exploitation attempt to obliterate originality within humankind. Within such a system, questions that demand a subjective response, for instance, Was he happy?, become irrelevant. Happiness, here, is naturally assumed, for, as a citizen, the individual has achieved complete and utter “normalcy,” and in this society, being “average” is equated with being happy. The greatest irony of the poem is that in many ways the audience is the unknown citizen, for whether we realize it or not, our lives are largely shaped and dictated by the great social, political, and economic forces that seek to establish conformity to the attitudes and beliefs that they produce. One of Auden’s most famous lines, from the poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, states: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” This sentiment rejects romantic tenets and the notion that poetry can change events; however, it does hint at Auden’s belief that poetry can influence how we see and understand the world
around us, and by extension, ourselves. Such reflection appears to be at the center of “The Unknown Citizen.”
Auden was born in 1907 and was raised in northern England, the son of a doctor and a nurse. He received his primary education at St. Edmund’s School in Surrey and Gresham’s School in Kent. Auden’s early interest in science and engineering earned him a scholarship to Oxford University; however, his interest in poetry led him to switch his field of study to English. While at Oxford, Auden became familiar with modernist poetry, particularly that of T. S. Eliot, and he became a central member of a group of writers that included Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis Mac-Neice, a collective variously labeled the “Oxford Group” or the “Auden Generation.” In 1928 Auden’s first book, Poems, was privately printed by Spender. During the same year, Eliot accepted Auden’s verse play Paid on Both Sides: A Charade for publication in his magazine Criterion. After graduating from Oxford, Auden lived for more than a year in Berlin before returning to England to become a teacher. During the 1930s Auden traveled to Spain and China, became involved in political causes, and wrote prolifically. In this period he composed The Orators: An English Study (1932), an experimental satire that mixes poetry and prose; three plays in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood; two travel books—one of which was written with Louis MacNeice; and the poetry collection Look, Stranger! (1936; published in the United States as On This Island). Auden left England in 1939 and became a citizen of the United States. His first book as an emigrant, Another Time (1940), contains some of his best-known poems, among them “September 1, 1939,” and “Musée des Beaux Arts.” His 1945 volume The Collected Poetry, in which he revised, retitled, or excluded many of his earlier poems, helped solidify his reputation as a major poet. Throughout his career Auden won numerous honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947) and the National Book Award for The Shield of Achilles (1955). In his later years, Auden continued to teach, to deliver lectures, and to edit and review books. He wrote several more volumes of poetry, including City without Walls and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). He died while on a trip to Vienna in 1973. He is buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The opening lines of the poem establish an ironic tone as the speaker of the poem begins to construct a satiric portrait of the average citizen. In the first line of the poem the speaker turns to the “Bureau of Statistics,” and in line 3 to “reports,” as a source for information regarding the “unknown” citizen. This is intensely ironic, for while the Bureau does not identify the citizen by name, such a Bureau does contain detailed data regarding every citizen. The data the Bureau collects identifies an individual in terms of detailed facts and figures; however, it fails to truly identify those qualities which distinguish him/her from all others. For instance, such data gives no information regarding a person’s hopes, dreams, or desires, or those personal or idiosyncratic qualities that distinguish each individual. Although certain “details” regarding a person are contained in such reports, the individual remains truly unknown, and this is the central irony the poem plays upon.
The irony continues to build in these two lines of the poem. In line 4, the unknown citizen is referred to as a “saint” in the “modern sense” of the word. In the old-fashioned sense of the word, a saint is someone who overcomes great challenges, maintains their personal convictions in the face of intense adversity, usually stands alone and often perishes while maintaining and defending their beliefs. Such a life, in other words, is an extraordinary one. The poem, however, suggests that in the modern sense of the word, a saint is one whose life in anything but extraordinary.
What distinguishes sainthood in this poem is a life of complete and utter ordinariness. For instance, the unknown citizen always acts in the accepted or expected way. As noted later in the poem, when there was war, he was for war; when there was peace, he was for peace. This suggests that his convictions and beliefs are formed not through individual reflection and personal conviction, but rather by the greater political, social, moral, and economic institutions that seek and dictate conformity to a standard thought and way of life. Thus, the unknown citizen ends up serving the “Greater Community” by perpetuating the ideologies that the modern institutions define, by fitting into the mold instead of breaking it.
These lines begin to detail the unknown citizen’s life of “sainthood.” The flat, matter-of-fact tone is suggestive of a report, the very kind of reports referred to in line 3. Such a compilation of data underscores the citizen’s lack of individuality.
The reference to Fudge Motor as being incorporated (Inc.) suggests that this is a large and powerful company, an institution which can dictate social norms in a significant way, much like the automobile industry does today. This company, like all the other institutions noted in the poem, wields a great deal of power and therefore contributes to the shaping of society and by extension the individual’s life.
This section of the poem underscores how average the unknown citizen is, for as line 9 notes, he conforms completely to the given, not questioning or challenging it in any way. These lines also stress the scientific approach to understanding a man, an approach that is deeply layered as the Union’s report is further investigated so that another report examining the Union’s report is generated (line 10). Such a detail is highly ironic for it deliberately exaggerates, while at the same time undercuts, the validity of the “scientific” model and moves it into the realm of ridiculousness.
- The Caedman Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry is available on audio cassette from Audiobooks.
- Tell Me The Truth About Love is available on audio cassette from Audiobooks.
In these four lines the speaker continues to document the “normalcy” of the citizen and compile a list of the organizations that influence his life, often in very subtle ways. The Social Psychology worker’s role is to immediately identify any deviation from the accepted standard and, by implication, correct such behavior. Auden’s poem attacks such organizations and the society that encourages individuals to become mere products of such forces rather than individuals in the true sense. In line 15 the poet touches on the persuasive and insidious manners in which many modern organizations work. The advertising industry is built upon the subtle persuasion that as a citizen one needs whatever product they are selling. However, it is often the case that one does not require that product in any real sense at all. By calling such commonplace institutions into question, the poet encourages the reader to question his/her own role in society and ask if he/she is not unlike the unknown citizen in some ways.
Here the poet continues to tabulate the characteristics of the “Modern Man.” The language employed in these lines and throughout the poem is colloquial, and the allusions to common possessions such as a radio and a car, and devices such as installment plans, allow the reader to easily engage in and identify with the poetic statement.
In this section the “normalcy” of the unknown citizen is perhaps most clearly stated as the poem explicitly notes how average the citizen is, meeting all the standards of norms expected of a person of his generation. Such complete conformity is suggestive of the power that mass organizations possess in the modern industrial world. The poem addresses the desirability of the citizen’s acceptance of this normalcy.
The reference to eugenics in line 26 is particularly striking, for eugenics is a branch of science concerned with improving the human race through the control of hereditary factors. This single reference touches upon two aspects central to the poem’s theme: the cold and detached “scientific” approach organizations employ to collect “information” on individuals, and the controlled conformity such groups desire.
The poem reaches its climax within the closing two lines of the poem. After outlining the standards of normalcy dictated by society, questions regarding freedom and happiness are absurd. They are ridiculous because the modern society defined in the lines above is not concerned with individual notions of freedom and happiness. What it seeks, the poem suggests, is quite the opposite: it encourages citizens to identify happiness and freedom by its own terms. In other words, if one possesses the car, the radio, the frigidaire, and reflects the desires of the all-powerful institutions, accepting peace when peace comes, supporting war when war comes, then one would naturally be happy and free. The poem ends on an ironic note, for if anything had been wrong, the system and society the poem delineates would certainly have not heard.
At the beginning of the poem we are told that “the State” so enthusiastically approves of the behaviors described here that it has erected a marble monument to the Unknown Citizen, making him a lasting example to all other citizens. Ordinarily, we think of a hero as someone who has actively done something that will make life better for his fellow citizens. Auden’s point here is that modern government seems to consider the best service that a citizen can perform to be keeping quiet and doing nothing to disrupt the bureaucracy’s smooth functioning. In a sense, he is right: the nature of bureaucracy is that all people are treated equally (in respect to all other people of their classification), so the best imaginable citizen for a bureaucratic system would be one who has so few distinguishing traits that he ends his life without even a name. The irony is that we know a hero to be someone who has distinguished him- or herself and has drawn our attention and admiration by doing something beyond what could rightly be expected. If it comes down to a choice, this poem tells us, the bureaucratic government would much favor the obscure person over the distinct, because that person fits the design of bureaucracy better. Auden may seem cynical in this poem, except for the fact that his inspiration is not a wildly imagined futuristic scenario, but is in fact based in reality: in the tombs of Unknown Soldiers that several nations have erected since World War I, the states are honoring random corpses for their indistinct service and anonymous deaths. Even if we consider the fact that soldiers are specifically and painstakingly taught to surrender their individuality, so that in combat no one will endanger those around him with an unanticipated act, it does not take much imagination to leap from the battlefield to the overpopulated chaos of modern life that makes the heroic treatment of “JS/07/M/378” seem almost reasonable.
Science and Technology
Writers often portray science and technology as threats to human individuality. The reason for this is that these fields’ central interests actually do oppose uniqueness. Science can observe the world with curiosity, but for the interest of the scientific community a phenomenon that cannot be reproduced, even if only in theory, is not worth talking about. Mixing two chemicals in a flask, for example, will create a reaction, but it is not considered science unless all of the different aspects are described in a way that lets someone somewhere else reproduce the reaction. This is why scientists use their own special scientific notation to transcend the languages of the world. It also has to do with why the poem refers to the Unknown Citizen as “JS/07/M/378.” All of these letters and numbers undoubtedly mean something to the bureaucrats in the government, telling them more than a name such as “Smith” or “Auden” would, just as “NaCl” signifies more to the scientist than the common term “salt.”
Standardization has created the great technological boom of the twentieth century. By making devices with standard parts, a malfunction can be fixed by replacing the broken part; this saves the expense of scrapping all of the connected parts that are still in good shape. In modern times people often
Topics for Further Study
- Write a letter from an unknown citizen to the Bureau of Statistics, objecting to the boring impression this poem gives of him and explaining what he thinks his life is really like.
- Explain how the style of writing in this poem is similar to something that “the State” would publish. What phrases does it use that sound like bureaucratic language? What about the rhyme scheme?
- What techniques does Auden use in this poem to show what he really thinks is absurd?
express regret that products are not handmade by craftspersons like they once were, but if every product were uniquely constructed, it would be economically impossible for most of us to own consumer products like the phonograph, radio, car and refrigerator mentioned in line 21. It should come as no surprise that the theory of standardization which has served the natural sciences and technology so well would be applied to the field of human behavior in the social sciences. In this poem, Auden uses capitalization of their formal (and formidable) titles to draw attention to the institutions that found it to be in their interests to consider this man as only a replaceable part and not as an independent whole: “Bureau of Statistics,” “Greater Community,” “War,” “Fudge Motors,” “Union,” “Social Psychology,” “Producers Research,” “High Grade Living,” “Installment Plan,” “Modern Man,” “Public Opinion,” and “Eugenist.”
Is it absurd to ask if the Unknown Citizen was happy? Yes, in the sense that absurdity indicates an absence of meaning, and the measured, quantified world of the State has no place for the meaning of happiness. Unfortunately, individual humans do care if they are happy: by definition, it is what humans seek, even those humans who find their happiness through suffering. But the society that surrounds “JS/07/M/378” has no more interest in his happiness than an automobile manual would have in examining the “moral worth” of a grade of gasoline: it is as if the man’s society and his happiness existed in two separate universes. It is easy to see why the citizen would feel unconnected to his surroundings or feel alienated. We could almost say that the bureaucracy is a hostile environment for modern man to live in, even though a bureaucrat—such as the speaker of this poem—would not see it that way.
In a larger sense, the individual is part of his environment and cannot really considered to be something different than it, but the literature of this century, starting with Freudian psychology, has concerned itself with how people become emotionally alienated from the world that they see and touch every day. The paradox of modern life is that social bureaucracy could not possibly concern itself with something so unmeasurable as the “happiness” of each individual, especially as the population continues to grow, but by avoiding happiness, society becomes more and more irrelevant to the individual.
“The Unknown Citizen” is an occasional poem. That is to say, it is a poem written to mark a specific occasion or event. The occasion is indicated in the lines contained in parenthesis that precede the body of the poem. As these lines indicate, the poem is a written monument that functions as a cenotaph: it commemorates a fallen man whose identity is unknown. However, unlike the soldier who falls in a battle of war, the battle this individual appears to be unwittingly a part of is a social battle, since he is labelled an unknown citizen and not soldier.
Despite being unknown by name, the citizen is identified by his social identification, the number, “JS/07/M/378.” This number is much like a social security number. It leads investigators to various data banks that provide details regarding the citizen’s life, and this is the irony upon which the poem turns. Although many facts about the citizen are known, he remains unknown because details highlighting his individuality are ignored. He is simply representative of all the citizenry who conform to set standards and practices, standards which are dictated by the mass organizations and institutions that shape society. The lines preceding the body of the text underscore this irony and, together with the poem, satirically suggest that the “monument” is not a celebration of such an existence, but rather a condemnation of the system and the complacent individuals who support it.
“The Unknown Citizen” follows a somewhat erratic rhyme scheme: ababaccdeeffdgghhijjikmknnnoo. The poem concludes with a closed couplet—two successive lines that contain a grammatically complete statement. The final word of each of these lines rhymes with one another. The statement is considered “closed” in that it does not depend on what precedes it to complete its grammatical structure or thought. In other words, its meaning is contained within the two lines, and it is within these two lines that the climax of the poem is reached.
In 1940, the year that this poem was published in Auden’s book Another Time, the attention of the entire world was focused on the war in Europe, which we eventually came to refer to as World War II. The poet was living in America then, comfortable in a teaching position, but he had spent most of his life in England and had traveled extensively throughout the world before settling here. He became an American citizen in 1939, the year that Britain declared war against Germany.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, and almost immediately he began rebuilding the German military, which had been dismantled by international demand at the end of World War I. In 1938, the German Army attacked Austria and took control: the other nations of the world disapproved, but did nothing to intervene. Germany then claimed rights to the region along its border with Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland. In September of 1938, with the encouragement of Britain and France, Czechoslovakia signed the Warsaw Pact, giving the Sudetenland to Germany in exchange for a promise of no further aggression. The nations of Europe thought they had avoided a war, but the pact was broken six months later, in March of 1939, when German troops attacked and defeated the remaining Czech nation.
Having learned that Hitler would not stop and could not be trusted, the nations of the world prepared for the inevitable war. When German troops invaded Poland in September of 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany. Soon most of the countries of Europe were pulled into war. In accordance with a secret pact between Berlin and Moscow, Russia, which previously had been Germany’s
Compare & Contrast
- 1940: The first color television was developed by Hungarian-American inventor Peter Gold-mark, who also introduced the 33-1/3 r.p.m. record player in 1948.
1951: CBS began broadcasting with the Gold-mark system, but it failed to catch on because most people would not buy the special television sets required to receive the signal.
1954: RCA introduced color television sets that could also read the same signal as those regularly broadcast by the networks in black and white.
Today: Television stations are ready to start broadcasting in HDTV, which stands for High Definition Television, a system with twice the number of scanning lines per page. It is estimated that by 2110 standard television sets will be obsolete, since the only broadcasts will be in the HDTV format.
- 1940: Germany took control of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, and Romania. The United States provided England with weapons, but was not yet officially in the war against Germany. Italy and Japan were united with Germany in the “Axis”.
1945: After being defeated in World War II, Germany was divided into four sections by the conquering powers, England, Russia, and the United States.
1949: Two separate countries were formed out of Germany: one Communist and the other democratic.
1989: So many people were leaving Communist East Germany that the government tore down the stone wall that split the city of Berlin into east and west parts.
Today: Germany is reunited and is a strong force in the European Economic Community.
- 1940: The first commercial airline flight using pressurized cabins flew from New York to Burbank, California, with a stop in Kansas City. The flight took fourteen hours and had seats that could convert into sleeping berths.
Today: A non-stop commercial flight from new York to Los Angeles takes approximately six hours.
enemy, joined the attack against Poland, and when Poland was fell the two countries divided its land among them (in June of 1941, Russia was attacked by Germany, and joined the Allied Forces in opposition). Throughout late 1939 and early 1940, smaller countries either were invaded or were coerced into peaceful surrender by aggressive nations: Russia failed to conquer Finland but took 16,000 square miles of its land, along with the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; Germany took Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Holland; Italy tried unsuccessfully to take Greece and Egypt; Japan took control of China, Indochina and Thailand. After France was defeated by German troops in 1940, Britain was the only European country to stand in opposition to the Axis (an alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan). British citizens had been preparing for a German attack since 1938, and in 1940 bombing raids began pummeling the country almost daily.
During this time, the United States government was following a policy of isolation and was staying away from the affairs of the rest of the world. The supporters of isolationism were a strange, unlikely bunch: conservative bankers who hated the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt, farmers who had been saved by Roosevelt’s policies, Irish-Americans who opposed alliance with Britain, German-Americans who feared being forced to fight against their homeland, and more. They were also an especially vocal group, sending a million letters to Congress within three days of Britain and France’s declarations of war, telling their representatives to stay out of the problems in Europe. Isolationists kept the United States from providing weapons for fighting against Germany until March of 1941, when the president signed the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized $7 billion in military credits for Britain. America did not enter the war until December of 1941, when Japan, an ally of Germany, attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
This poem’s negative view of passivity and compliance reflects the general disappointment, after the fact, that citizens felt for their governments who had tried to accommodate Hitler with the idealistic Warsaw Pact. It might also reflect the isolationism of America, which tried to go about its daily business as if the rest of the world were not in turmoil. Another possibility is that Auden was influenced by Nazi Germany’s systematic, mechanical destruction of certain people as if they were not human or were worthless, while the rest of the world claimed to be unable to help. Jews, blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, and others were rounded up by the German military and murdered in the Holocaust. Many American citizens who lived then said later that they were not aware of the murders until 1945, when the death camps at Belsen and Buchenwald were liberated by Allied troops as the Nazi Army collapsed. Others, however, have said that the news was repeated regularly, even though it was not given front-page treatment in the newspapers. Well before the invasion of Poland, the Nazis openly attacked and tortured those who Hitler had announced were “inferior.” They were sent to labor camps or made to wear arm bands to set them apart from the rest of the population. After Poland fell, Jews from Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were transported to Warsaw, where they were herded into overpopulated ghettos, and later many were taken to death camps, where they were killed by the hundreds in gas chambers and ovens. A man of Auden’s intelligence and worldliness would most likely have been aware of the Nazi Holocaust and the way that humans were stripped of their lives and possessions by a social machine. After the war, many came to explain their willing participation in the horror by saying that they were “just following orders.”
“The Unknown Citizen” articulates a social, ethical and political awareness that Auden refined over a period of years. Critic Arnold Kettle, writing in Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, believes that Auden’s participation in the political realm during the 1930s positively influenced his development as a writer. Kettle states that Auden’s involvement encouraged him to explore the relationship between personal or private experiences and public or social development, and led him “to see himself as part of a social situation, not merely as one lonely man.…” It also assisted him, according to Kettle, in developing a poetic text that was socially orientated, turning outward toward common experiences rather than inward toward situations which are solely personal and individual. “The Unknown Citizen” reflects the qualities Kettle outlines as the poem explores the structures of contemporary society through the individual, an individual who stands as a representation of the greater social fabric of which he is a product. Thus, the individual is not simply one man but every man. Political poetry, Kettle states, makes the reader conscious of power, thereby “opening up the world rather than attempting to enclose a part of it in some sort of mystic purity.” With its ironic condemnation of modern life, “The Unknown Citizen” rejects romantic or mystic notions and confronts the reader with a construction of the world many fail to recognize.
However, in W. H. Auden, Dennis Davison criticizes Auden’s portrait of modern society as “too superficial.” He notes that in Auden’s attempt to portray the sense of conformity social forces press upon the individual, he overlooks the conflicts that exist between social institutions. For instance, tensions between trade unions and big business are common. The balance between the supply of manufactured goods and consumer demand is delicate; capitalistic society often wavers between economic booms and periods of sluggish growth. The tensions that arise from these situations are, according to Davison, “equally characteristic of modern mass-society as are the conformist influences.” By failing to recognize them, Auden’s assessment of society falls short and leads the reader to consider only part of the complex issues that shape who we are.
Bruce Meyer is Director of the Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry, The Open
What Do I Read Next?
- George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, written in 1948, shares this poem’s suspicions about how society pressures an individual to abandon his own personality, but turns it into a life-threatening, science-fiction political adventure.
- The Organization Man by William Holling sworth Whyte was a sociological study that made the best–seller lists in 1956. It describes a condition that Auden anticipated in this poem: how workers in bureaucratic situations became inclined to stop thinking of themselves and instead became obsesses with “belongingness,” or the need to be part of a group.
- Ordinary people told their stories about World War II and what they remember about the times surrounding it to interviewer Studs Turkel, whose 1985 book The Good War is a record of his conversations. This is an excellent way to eavesdrop on anonymous, unimportant people like the one described in this poem and to see what they thought of themselves.
- Of the hundreds of biographies and memoirs about Auden that are available, one of the most pleasant is The Poet Auden, written by his personal friend and famed literary scholar A. L. Rowse and published in 1987. This is not a book to look to for information about the poet, but it gives readers a good sense of the man.
- Another source for finding out what Auden was like is Dorothy J. Farnan’s Auden In Love, about the poet’s affair from 1939 to his death in 1973 with fellow poet Chester Kallman. This book gives details skipped in other books about Auden’s private life, leading to a more rounded picture of him.
Room (1989), Radio Silence (1991), and The Presence (1998). In the following essay, Meyer argues that the Unknown Citizen “is both heroic and bathetic, a figure who is ennobled by his life (in the eyes of the state) and lowered by his participation in a world that ignores the true values of who and what he is.”
When the world was on the verge of World War II, W. H. Auden arrived in New York City, perplexed by the “reductio ad absurdam” of a society that had lowered modern man to the mechanistic level of a statistic. In the poems that he wrote shortly before the outbreak of the war, Auden struggled to perceive some solace or living presence in the grind and shuffle of the social order. In one of his poems from the same period, “September 1, 1939,” Auden located himself in the disenchantend milieu of New York City on the day World War II began, as the ideals of civilization appeared threatened once again by the forces of barbarism:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low and dishonest decade
Auden was uncertain as to the value of civilization and its ability to deal with the impending war. He was not alone in this sentiment. One of his contemporaries, British poet laureate C. Day Lewis, declared in his poem “Where Are the War Poets?” that “we who lived by honest dreams / Defend the bad against the worse.” Like Day Lewis, Auden struggled to perceive defensible virtues of a world in which men had been reduced to commodities and numbers. Yet for all the gravity of its memorializing of the faceless Everyman, “JS/07/M378,” who is paradoxically everywhere and nowhere, Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” is a satire on the nature of a society and an ethos that pursues progress in the name of the common good while missing the point that all good should lead to human happiness.
Originally published in The Listener, the BBC’s mass-market weekly radio program guide, “The Unknown Citizen” was intended to speak to and for the common man. Writing in A Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden, John Fuller points out that the poem “sketches in, with the lightest of ironies, some details of the average man … put through the statistician’s hoop.” Published in Auden’s 1940 collection, Another Time, “The Unknown Citizen” is an ironic comment on the pathetic state of affairs in which many British found themselves at the onset of the war: individuals were honoured for their faceless roles in being good citizens who behaved according to both laws and programatic probabilities, yet they were asked to make the sacrifice of individuality and personal passion in the name of social well-being. The Listener’s review of Another Time suggests that Auden’s poems from this period fall into three distinct groupings: “the first serious and obscure because the author has telescoped so much thought into the verse, the second delightfully irresponsible but with some of the squibs a little damp, the third mainly elegaic and deeply moving.” In many ways, “The Unknown Citizen” falls into all three categories.
As a text, the poem supposes to be an inscription on a monument, a serious memorial to the ultimate obscurity to which modern man is condemned by the “mass” nature of his society. The Unknown Citizen lies buried in a grave without a name, but he has also been buried beneath the layers of social and commercial measurements that modern society has heaped upon the individual in the name of progress, trade, and administration. He is both a victim and a hero of his system. In this contradiction, there is no suggestion that the Citizen is a martyr; he is simply someone who should be remembered by a system that sadly is not geared to memory. The obscurity of the Citizen’s condition is further complicated by the obscurity of the poem itself. We don’t know who “JS” is, and Auden remains sphinx-like in leaving the issue cloudy and unresolved. The point of the poem is that the identity of the individual cited in the dedication doesn’t matter. What matters is the paradox of a memorial raised by a society lacking a memory.
In the second grouping suggested by the Listener reviewer, the poem stands as a parody of the Jeffersonian ideal that the purpose of officialdom is to assist the public in the pursuit of happiness. The final lines “Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” suggest that the means by which a human life is measured are statistical rather than spiritual or even personal, and that only unhappiness, not happiness, is the driving force of recognition behind an oblivious social system that denies the passions and sentiments of those it contains.
As an elegy, the third grouping which The Listener review perceived in Another Time,“The Unknown Citizen” offers a lamentation for the loss of individuality and personal distinction. The elegy, in its truest sense, is nostalgic. It is a poetic form that glances backward to a lost time, a lost innocence, and a lost presence. The elegy always examines absence; the absence in this context is the Citizen. His passing is recorded not as a matter of grief or an outpouring of emotion, but as a moment of the celebration of conformity, mediocrity, and indistinction. This triumverate of bathetic traits is what has filled the void created by the Citizen’s passing, and the poem, in this light, poses as a satire and commentary on the failings of contemporary society more than as an elegy or a lamentation of individual loss. Yet it is this sense of loss that cannot be denied. Why raise a memorial to something that is best forgotten? Auden, in this case, is being purposefully ambiguous in the name of irony, while simultaneously remaining steadfast to a profound notion of nostalgia. As is the case in such novels as D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), a high price is paid for the pursuit of a better society through the imposition of a mechanistic and apassionate life.
In Auden’s view, modern man pays the highest sacrifice—even higher than that paid by those who perished in World War I—because he is more than an icon; he is a statistic. Or is Auden suggesting that the new iconography of society is not the individual but the ways that measure and record the individual’s life? “The Unknown Citizen” opens with the findings of the “Bureau of Statistics,” a monolithic entity of social measurement that reduces man to the lowest common denominator—a number on a spread sheet. As the poem progresses, the life of the individual is measured in public facts rather than in private events, suggesting that personal biography is secondary on the scale of social worth to the value of the citizen as a mere cog within a system. The reader discovers that the Unknown Citizen was a law-abiding veteran and union member who served his community through his very facelessness and his participation in a consumer society. In a satiric yet Orwellian gesture that points out the pressures that the social system places upon the individual, (a stance anticipating Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four),“The Unknown Citizen” makes a hero out of an Everyman figure who is subsumed by a social system. Auden’s stance, however, is less harsh than Orwell’s vision in its almost gentle rendering of the sentimental details that benchmark the Citizen’s life, such as drinking with his “mates” and parenting “five children.” The underlying irony, however, is as profound as that offered by Orwell: that which is heroic is ultimately tragic. The modern world leaves no room for the triumphant. The title, echoing the cenotaph in Whitehall or the hallowed grave of the soldier “known but to God,” is meant to alarm the reader into a state of wry shock. The irony comes when the reader realizes that this is not someone else he is reading about, but himself. To this end, the citizen “known but to God” stands as a symbol of everyone in society, and as a grim reminder of how the modern state of mass man is a desert for individual identity.
Like Orwell, who was actively engaged in explorations of leftist politics in the 1930s, Auden was taken up with the great debate of his age pitting individualism and a fatigued perception of liberal democracy against the excitement and anticipation of a mass state devised on Marxist proletarian ideals. By 1939, when Auden composed “The Unknown Citizen,” the debate had almost exhausted itself in the battleground of the Spanish Civil War—a war of political ideologies where the beliefs of mass identity prevailed over the weaker yet more just forces of liberal, democratic individualism. The aftermath of the Spanish conflict left an enormous number of questions unresolved. What was the role of the individual, and what price would individuals have to pay for participating in the broader contexts of socio-political structures? In Auden’s case, the leftist political beliefs that he so fervently charted during his idealistic moments of the early 1930s had manifested themselves in the failures of Utopian socialism at the hands of Stalin. Ultimately, this debate of beliefs found its synthesis in World War II (which set mass-minded Fascism against more individualistic ideals) and the Cold War between the East and West. What underlies “The Unknown Citizen” is the irony that individuals and ideologies somehow don’t mix when the price for belief is personal identity. Such was the letdown that the poets of Auden’s generation—including such voices as Spender, Day Lewis, and MacNeice—felt and perceived as a prevailing malaise on the eve of World War II. In this light, “The Unknown Citizen” is an elegy not only to perished identity but to the perished hopes of a generation that sought to remedy the problems of Europe and the world through the pursuit of organized and overly rational social structures founded on premises that put the individual second to the needs
“‘The Unknown Citizen’ opens with the findings of the ‘Bureau of Statistics,’ a monolithic entity of social measurement that reduces man to the lowest common denominator—a number on a spread sheet.”
of society. What the poem implies is that the solution to the problems of man in society are often worse than the problems themselves. Therein lies the epicentre of the tribute and the lamentation.
On this elegaic note, the poem charts its structural course in a genuinely brilliant marriage of content and form. The irregular length of the lines and the varying rhyme scheme suggest that “The Unknown Citizen” is less of an elegy than an ode—a philosophical (in this case political) poem undertaking the examination of an overwhelming universal question. Unlike the classical elegy and truer to the ode form, the tone of the poem departs from lamentatious seriousness and enters the realm of a satiric speculative narrative in its acount of the life of the departed citizen as perceived by the persona of the group or “official” opinion. Rather than raise a series of ponderous questions, an attribute of the ode, “The Unknown Citizen” examines the central question of “what is man” in the context of the modern world. Auden’s response is both mocking and ironic. The element of praise or “epideictic rhetoric” that is also inherent in the ode is undercut by the blitheness of the final lines and the reduction of the issue of the once–great human spirit to a matter of measurements, calculations, and abbreviations. But what is most shocking is that this is a statement of what the group (or public statement) thinks of its constituent part. The solution to this problem of self-awareness seems to be that we should recognize the value in ourselves. Auden’s citizen, in this strange twist on traditional forms and structures, is both heroic and bathetic, a figure who is enobled by his life (in the eyes of the state) and lowered by his participation in a world that ignores the true values of who and what he is—a world where there is no correction for the problem of misplaced virtues. In this sense, Auden sounds a grave warning to his readers regarding the failures of a world that might have been better and that has fallen short of its positivist ideals of mass consumption and materialism. Yet in spite of this context, the State in the poem—and ultimately the poet himself—ordains the heroism in every modern individual who perseveres in the name of life regardless of society’s blindness to the true value of the humanity within the personal history.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
George T. Wright
In the following excerpt, Wright discusses common characteristics within the diversity of Auden’s poetry.
What kind of poet is W. H. Auden? Critics have often condemned him for not being one kind or another, but they have seldom succeeded, even when they have wanted to, in describing the kind he is. During a career that spans two continents and several faiths, his poetry has seemed, from phase to phase, to alter not merely its loyalties but its character. Is it really British or American? really Freudian, Marxist, or Christian? Is Auden mainly a satirist, a Romantic, a journalist, a song writer, or what? Every new poem or new style of his seems to challenge what we thought we knew about him. Randall Jarrell, with delicate malice, once placed at the head of an article hostile to Auden a quotation he attributed to Heraclitus: We never step twice into the same Auden.
Two or three characteristics, however, seem fairly permanent. For one thing, although Auden, sometimes very obviously, borrows techniques or mannerisms from dozens of other writers, he has to an extraordinary degree the poet’s ability to make what he borrows his own, to mold it into something we think of as recognizably Auden. All readers will probably see as essential qualities of his style a quickness and lightness of touch; a cleanness of phrase and sentence; a caustic wit; an ironic hardness that, even as it recommends love as the answer to modern anxiety and injustice, is seldom in danger of sentimentality. At times Auden’s wit is so exuberant and zestful as to produce, in the service of the most serious ideas, fanciful and even outrageous extravaganzas. At other times the wit is restrained and the verse austere; his writing achieves an Augustan, a Latin, a rococo, elegance.
But, in spite of the feeling we have of an undeniable precision, most readers of Auden have had the experience, after reading one of his poems, of being thoroughly mystified—the thing doesn’t make sense; the point vanishes between two stanzas; and the reader is left with a blurred image, an obscure situation, a half understood, possibly misunderstood point. It may be that Auden intends this uncertainty as a way of saying that, among all our precise instruments for measuring, computing, refining, we still have no sure knowledge of where we are. But among the causes of Auden’s obscurity are some which account in large part for both the blur and the zest of his writing: his concern at once with inner experience and with society, his frequent shifts in perspective, his readiness to interpret anything as a parable of human experience, and his tireless experimentation.
Although Auden’s poems always probed the illnesses of modern society he usually approached this subject through the examination of inner motives and conflicts. A consistent student of the inner life—of anxiety, guilt, fear, self-doubt, anguish, love—he brought himself for a time in the 1930s to maintain that our inner lives could be put right only if certain social changes occurred; but he always found more congenial the opposing view that, whatever its causes, the center of our malaise, as well as the focal point of any cure, is the lonely human being. His work tends to make the outer world symbolic of an inner reality that is the scene of all finally significant action or at least the testing ground on which all action must be tried out and evaluated. Intellectual as Auden’s poetry often seems—removed, detached, impersonal—the center of it is nevertheless the inner man who is thinking, feeling, comparing, refining, mocking, doubting, believing. As Auden puts it in a poem of the 1930s: “For private reasons I must have the truth.”
Still, from another point of view the public reasons are important. Skeptical of utopias, critical of society’s administrators and managers, Auden is always alert to the contradictions between the personal and the public; and his poetry constantly shifts its angles of vision in order to show graphically the distance between the feeling inner self and what that self looks like from the point of view of the state, or of an objective observer. Even such an observer is at successive moments a social scientist, an interplanetary visitor, a psychoanalyst. The perspectives are often different, often changing; but all of them are needed to correct one another, to fill out Auden’s view of the whole man: anguished self, citizen, organism, outsider.
Outer perspectives, however, may be fairly clear (although some of their intricate combinations can be puzzling); it is the inner perspective that often makes poems hard for us to focus. In the early work Auden uses syntactical ellipsis to give us that hard, gruff, urgent sense of meaning deeper than words: “Can speak of trouble, pressure on men / Born all the time, brought forward into light / For warm dark moan.” Frequently, too, both here and later, the syntax, though always crisp, is very involved; in fact, no other modern poet uses such various or such elaborate sentences.
Auden’s poems are also full of unexplained pronouns, concepts, jokes, and contexts. Especially in the early poems (1928-32) we have a decisive sense of something happening, but not in a clearly defined place or time or situation. Many of these early poems revolve around the fighting of some unspecified war or an unexplained exile, but we do not know exactly who the enemy is, or what war we are engaged in, what its purpose is, or what we hope to gain. Although we may sometimes identify the cause with Marxist revolution (and early readers often did), we are not told enough to justify this identification; and the war is usually more intelligible as a conflict between inner forces of a Freudian kind, perhaps between a child and his elders.
The deliberate blurring is necessary to Auden’s aims in these poems. The effect is that of dream-symbolism; for Auden, in exploring the inner life, is trying to present objects and events which are strong in felt, not reasoned, significance. What is important in the early poems is not the intellectual exposition of a social or psychological doctrine but the feeling that accompanies ambiguous commitment: what it feels like to go into voluntary, purposeful, if regretful, exile or partly to see one’s way out of smothering anxieties and guilts. Even later on, when Auden’s poetry becomes more discursive, the inner reality is still central. As with more obvious stream-of-consciousness techniques, Auden’s aim is to avoid explaining what the feeling self already knows and he presents landscapes, statements, and dream-imagery as correlatives of inner anxiety or polished corruption. Indeed, much of the best of Auden’s work is expressionist in character; and even the rational statements, however analytical they sometimes become, normally function in poetic structures which distort outer reality to
“… Auden is remarkably attentive to the surfaces of ordinary life; for anything may, if we look at it right, suddenly glow with meaning.”
conform to the self’s feelings of anguish, dread, hope, faith or worry.…
Another permanent feature of Auden’s work is his delight in parables, in all literary or mythological structures that symbolize the relations between parts of the self or the self’s relation to elements of society or nature: the unidentified war, the Marxist conception of history, the Christian picture of a world fallen but capable of redemption through miracle. Fairy tales, fantasies, dreams, or any stylized model of events may express for him certain fundamental spiritual conditions in the life of men for which he is always seeking analogues and symbols—the relations between members of a family, between master and servant, between doctor and patient, or the relations that hold in quests, in detective stories, in legends and landscapes.
Auden thus subordinates the usual practical, objective categories of value, of time, and of political order in favor of a world of parabolic relationships that are symbolic of real but inner conditions. He subordinates appearance to what he feels is deeper reality. The surfaces of life are still important to him, for it is through the physical and the immediate that a man works out his salvation. But, although in Auden’s perspective one actual event may be empirically more important than another, any apparently trivial object, action, or system of relationships—a room, a meal, a forest—may have a capacity for illuminating our lives far beyond what we would expect from its modest position in ordinary life.
Holding such a view, Auden is remarkably attentive to the surfaces of ordinary life; for anything may, if we look at it right, suddenly glow with meaning. Looking at it right involves submitting it to sometimes bizarre perspectives, deliberately deranging our usual rational or sensory categories—having Caliban talk like Henry James, or locating a pastoral poem in a city bar. This kind of derangement is constant in Auden; it enters almost always into his imagery and is largely responsible for the blur of meaning that both intrigues and perplexes. It reminds us that his poetry, however rational in tone and structure, is faithful to its source in that unconscious that never gets logical categories straight, that his verse is often wildly playful, and that he is hopelessly in love with variety, improvisation, experiment.
Experiment, like other important things, may look trivial at first, may be so at first; but the trivial may lead us to the richest sort of meaning. Auden’s experiment often begins in parody and ends in conversion.…
He mimics the tones, the verbal habits, even the imagery of other writers, of older verse forms, and of political, scientific, or religious points of view. But this mimicking is not always, or even typically, hostile. It may even be, at first, a form of reverence, an awe-stricken trying on of a new hat to see what it feels like on the head. And who knows? The hat may turn out to fit, to be the right one for the experimenter. Without the experiment, he might never have found the hat. Several of Auden’s poems in 1939 and 1940 show him “trying on” Christianity before he actually became a Christian. As he states in The Age of Anxiety, “Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it.…
But trying on a hat—or a style or a Church—whatever its serious side, is also amusing; and, as one of the age’s great wits, Auden is rarely far from a joke. The jokes sometimes undermine serious purposes, and his poems of the 1930s in particular often suffer from an uncertainty of feeling: there are too many tones, and we don’t know how to take them. Any sincere stance Auden assumes in a poem—Freudian, Marxist, or even Christian—is always in danger of being ridiculed by that other, comic side of him. And perhaps his most remarkable achievement is that, despite his almost unmanageable multiplicity of attitudes, he has not wasted his talents in ironic play but has worked through to new forms, new ironic structures, which do justice to the critical qualifications of the ironic intelligence, and yet affirm.
Auden, then, is a thoroughly serious poet, and a thoroughly amusing one. Never only one thing at once, he keeps shifting his own perspectives on the world and, in the process, reveals different sides of himself. His formal variety is astounding: he performs authentically as satirist, song writer, epigrammatist, didactic poet, meditative poet, elegist, odist; in long lines or short, sonnets or sestinas, octosyllabic couplets or four-stress alliterative verse, loose meter or strict, iambics or syllabics, and all kinds of rhyme. He develops styles and abandons them, a sign not of instability but of versatility—of wide, deep, and various interests. From the oracular early poems to the more direct analyses of social illness; from the quiet music of the early songs to the abstract imagery of the later 1930s that culminates in the earnest poems on Yeats and Freud; and from these to the elegance of “New Year Letter” and The Sea and the Mirror, and to the balanced Latin opulence of his more ambitious poems of the last three decades, Auden’s poetry is continually changing.
Within these periods, even within single poems, the poetry is rarely single; it plays off mood against mood, reinforces wisdom with wit, enriches its textures with quick changes in feeling. For art, to Auden, is a mixed, a paradoxical, affair. It is play, but play is worth dying for; and yet it is, too, “in the profoundest sense, frivolous. For one thing, and one thing only, is serious: loving one’s neighbor as oneself.” Auden’s poetry keeps bringing together the sense of everything as of intense significance, and the sense of everything as trivial and frivolous. But each attitude is coherent only in the light of the other.
In fact, as it explores both the rationalities and suddennesses of the inner life, Auden’s poetry asserts as its basic insight the connectedness of everything, even of the most unlikely things. The techniques of wit, the shifting images, the unexpected turns that the prosody often takes, all stress the surprise that life is—“O what authority gives / Existence its surprise?”—its playfulness, its magic, its outlandish order. Inner life and outer spectacle, landscape and self, society and feeling—all are discovered to be connected in mysterious, puzzling, disturbing, yet marvelous ways.
Source: “The Character of the Poet” in W. H. Auden, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 21-8
Callan, Edward, Auden: A Carnival of Intellect, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Chronical of the Second World War, David Gould, executive editor, Essex, England: Chronicle Publishing Group, 1990.
Davison, Dennis, W. H. Auden, Evans Brothers Limited, 1970, 174 p.
Kettle, Arnold, “W. H. Auden: Poetry and Politics in the Thirties,” in Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, edited by Jon Clark and others, Lawrence and Wishart, 1979, pp. 83-101.
Thompson, Laurence, 1940, New York: William Morrow Co., Inc., 1966.
Yates, Douglas, Bureaucratic Democracy: The Search for Deomcracy and Efficiency in American Government, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universtiy Press, 1982.
For Further Study
Collier, Richard, 1940: The Avalanche, New York: The Dial Press, 1979.
Collier’s approach to the subject of stretching one single year out to book-length form is to tell it in stories, quoting liberally from eyewitnesses. Most of this book concentrates on the war, but there is also some sense to be gotten of the rise of the Bureaucratic State.
Fuller, John, A Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.
As the dust jacket says, “this is a model Reader’s Guide”: it gives direct, clear explanations of all of Auden’s plays and poems.
Griffin, Howard, Conversations with Auden, edited by Donald Allen, San Francisco: Gray Fox Press, 1981.
In many cases, these conversations are not as telling as they could be—they often come off as if Auden is trying a little too hard to be clever. Still, he was a fascinating intellectual and his thoughts on many of the subjects here are fun to read.