The Unknown Citizen: W.H. Auden - Summary and Critical Analysis

The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden is a satiric poem. It describes an average citizen in a government-controlled state. In many big cities, there is a monument to the Unknown Soldier that stands for the thousands of unknown soldiers who die for their country. The title of Auden’s poem parodies this.

Wystan Hugh Auden

The citizen to whom the monument has been built has been found to be without any fault. He was a saint not because he searched for God but because he served the government perfectly. He did not get dismissed from his job. He was a member of the Union and paid all his dues to the union. A report by the Union shows that it was a balance union and did not take extreme views on anything. The social psychology workers found that he was popular among his fellow workers and had a drink with them now and then. He also bought a newspaper every day. He reached to the advertisements normally.

He had good health and although he went to the hospital once, he came out quite cured. The citizen was sensible about buying things on an installment basis. He had everything a modern man needed at home. Moreover, this ideal citizen was found to be sensible in his view. When there was peace, he supported it. But when there was war, he was ready to fight. He didn’t hold his personal views on anything. He had the right number of children and he did not quarrel with the education they got. The poet now asks the important questions. Was this man free? Was he happy? No government statistics can ever answer these kinds of questions.

The Unknown Citizen is a typical Auden’s poem in that it shows the poet’s profound concern for the modern world and its problems. A keen intelligent observer of the contemporary scene, Auden was one of the first to realize that the totalitarian socialist state would be no Utopia and that man there would be reduced to the position of a cog in the wheel. A citizen will have no scope to develop his initiative or to assert his individuality. He will be made to conform to the State in all things. It is the picture of such a citizen, in a way similar to Eliot’s Hollow Man, which is ironically presented in the poem. Auden dramatizes his theme by showing the glaring disparity between the complete statistical information about the citizen compiled by the State and the sad inadequacy of the judgments made about him. The poet seems to say, statistics cannot sum up an individual and physical facts are inadequate to evaluate human happiness- for man does not live by bread alone.

In the phrase ‘The Unknown’ the word ‘unknown’ means ordinary, obscure. So the whole phrase means ‘those ordinary, obscure soldiers as citizens of the state who laid down their lives for defending their motherland wanted name and fame, but remained unknown. The title of Auden’s poem parodies this. Thus ‘The Unknown Citizen’ means the ordinary average citizen in the modern industrialized urban society. He has no individuality and identity. He has no desire for self-assertion. He likes to remain unknown.

At the end of the poem the poet asks two questions. Was he free? Was he happy? No government statistics can ever answer these kinds of questions. By asking these questions, the poet is drawing our attention to the question of freedom and happiness. And ironically, the poet suggests that the modern man is slave to routine and he is incapable of understanding such concepts freedom and happiness. Therefore, such a question in this context would be ‘absurd’. Thus, this poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ is a bitter attack on modern society-its indifference towards individuality and identity. The only way for an individual to survive in a regimented society is to conform, obey and live in perpetual mental slavery. Such a creative is this ‘unknown citizen’ who is utterly devoid of any urge for self-assertion. Such a modern man is a slave to the routine, is incapable of understanding such concepts as freedom and happiness.

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