The Unknown Citizen
By W. H. Auden
W.H. Auden, the American poet of British origin, wrote ‘The Unknown Citizen’ in 1939. This was shortly after he migrated to the United States. The poem appeared in The New Yorker in 1939. One year later, it was included in Auden’s collection ‘Another Time’. Since then, countless readers have read and enjoyed this satirical poem that blisters with sarcasms against the practice in America and elsewhere of reducing all their citizens to a collection of cryptic statistical numbers.
Central theme …
The American system of politics, governance and social welfare uses a set of identification tag to collect, store, monitor and analyze the state of affairs of a citizen. Functional, accurate and scientific and user-friendly this system may be, but, the way it squeezes the most illustrious citizen and the most ordinary one through the same sieve makes it appear inhuman, brutal, insensitive and archaic. This method of cataloging citizens has no regard or room for the feelings, aspirations, sorrow, happiness, love, and excitement that a citizen experiences from his cradle to his grave. The system has no room for hero worship, nor has it any provision to castigate the most hideous characters. Abraham Lincoln, the iconic revered American had one set of numbers just as President Kenney’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had another set. This indifference and aloof nature of the number-letter based identification of individuals disturbed Auden. Through his pen and his sense of irony, he revolted against it in his poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’.
The poem is a stinging indictment of the American way of life and politics. The poem is an epitaph of a man who is identified by ‘JS/07/M/378’. This is the Social Security number the state has ascribed to him. No doubt, the number has everything about the man, but only externally. His education, job, spending habits, state of health, his material possessions, family size, participation in the country’s war etc. are all coded into these set of numbers. Auden conjures up an imaginary administrative monster – the Bureau of Statistics – that does the statistics collection, and collation job remorselessly, like a heartless robot.
‘Individualism’ is unknown to the Bureau of Statistics. Auden’s hero had led a ‘normal’ life with no blots, no brush with the law, had spent liberally, but judiciously, and worked hard till his last day in office, and had registered as a soldier when the call came without asking the justness of the war. By all accounts, he had led an ‘exemplary’ life, exactly akin to the ideal American’s ways. How did the state take note of this lifelong toil? Through a set of numbers! This shatters the ‘soul of his ideal citizen’. Such short-shrift given by the bureaucracy is demeaning and hurtful.
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