The Unknown Citizen
By W. H. Auden
Explanation and analysis on the poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’
About the poet
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.
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.
Irony in the Careful Depiction of the Unknown Citizen
The poem bristles with irony – a consequence of the humble citizen’s indignation. To intensify the irony, the speaker of the poem treads carefully in the portrayal of this unknown factory hand, just another nameless face in the teeming millions of toiling countrymen. This nondescript citizen has never been dismissed from job for disobedience or delinquency. In other words, it can be construed that he had to remain docile and spineless so as never confront his employer with any demand or right. Here begins the irony. He was a conformist, whom the society loved; not a radical whom the establishment detested. His pliable mindset is underscored by the fact that he was a due-paying union member, he was popular with his drinking buddies, he subscribed a daily newspaper, he was a law-abiding citizen, and he owned a “phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire,” just like the rest of the population.
Yet nobody knows his name; he is an anonymous entity. That he exists is indicated by his social security number: “To JS/07/M/378/.” To shroud any hint of his individual identity, he does not have an address that anchors him to a specific locality. He is married, but his wife stays in the dark; no one knows her name. His children, some five of them, remain unidentified.
Now, does this insignificant individual deserve a marble monument? Hardly so. What is the justification? Why would the establishment erect a monument to immortalize this dead man, who never did anything to unsettle the established order of the society? “When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.” Such servile conformity unravels the void in modern existence, so much bereft of individuality and freedom. Would it then be apt for the state to erect such a marvelous marble monument? The mind seethes in the jarring sarcasm. The irony evokes a wry smile in the face of the citizen.
Irony Through Impersonalization
The speaker assiduously imparts his ‘unknown citizen’ a colorless, emotionless and passive existence. He never asserts himself. He is so inert and mute that some third person, not he, narrates his life’s journey and accomplishments. Quite possibly, this ‘third person’ is someone from the government’s bureaucracy reading out his ‘report card’. Even his (the unknown citizen’s) wife and children can’t do the job of the narrator. Only the government’s agent can do it. The skilful use of passive voice bring into focus the docility of this man who has little individuality. He is a small entity lost in the multitude.
Furthermore, he was not sought out by a police or even a government agent; instead, he was found by the Bureau of Statistics. This further points to the fact that he was just another number, and not a human with body and soul. Such impersonalization pushes the ‘unknown person’ to oblivion.
The speaker of the poem then undermines the place and existence of this unknown man by addressing him not by his name but by “One,” whom none takes notice of. In fact, he goes onto describe the citizen as “ . . . in the modern sense of the old-fashioned word, he was a saint. . . that served the Greater Community.” Calling him “saint” elevates him, no doubt, but he gets pushed to the darkness of the past. Shorn of his name, body, soul and blood, the ‘unknown citizen fades into the realm of ‘nothingness’.