Its title echoing the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, ‘The Unknown Citizen’ is a poem that demonstrates W. H. Auden’s fine ability to fuse irony and wit with pathos and pity. Written in 1939, the poem was one of the first Auden wrote after he moved from Britain to the United States. You can read ‘The Unknown Citizen’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
‘The Unknown Citizen’ begins with a prefatory dedication which identifies this ‘unknown citizen’ only by a number (which roughly follows the structure of US social security numbers). Auden’s dedication suggests the poem was written to be inscribed on a marble monument to this ‘unknown citizen’, but of course, such a monument is fictional (as is the ‘Bureau of Statistics’ in the poem’s opening line). His ‘unknown citizen’ is being memorialised because of his remarkable averageness.
What is Auden saying with this fake eulogy for the most average of Joes? He’s making a satirical point, and this point is apparent right from that dedication at the start of the poem. This ‘Unknown Citizen’ has no name: like the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1923 dystopian novel We, he is known only by a number, the number that this fictional Bureau of Statistics uses to identify him. As Patrick McGoohan – playing ‘Number 6’ in the 1960s cult drama The Prisoner – would later protest: ‘I am not a number! I am a free man!’
And this is Auden’s point: in the imagined (future) world of ‘The Unknown Citizen’, people have lost all trace of individuality or personal identity: averageness and conformity are the ideal, and people are just numbers on a file or record somewhere rather than individuals with thoughts, feelings, fears, and aspirations of their own. How ‘free’ they are is a matter of doubt: the State (back to that rather Orwellian ‘Bureau of Statistics’) has this unknown citizen on file, even though he has apparently committed no crime, and much is known about the life and habits of this decidedly ordinary man, implying state surveillance and monitoring.
There are ‘reports on his conduct’, his Trade ‘Union reports that he paid his dues’, and in turn, the State’s own ‘report on his Union shows it was sound’. As so often in his poetry, Auden seems almost prophetic: here, in foreseeing the rise of Big Data, social media networks selling our information, and tech companies tracking our digital footprint so they eventually seem to know more about our habits, and our likes and dislikes, than we even do ourselves.
Then there is the broader idea of ‘freedom’ and the role social conditioning plays in restricting our behaviour, because we want to conform, we want to ‘get on’ in life, we want other people’s approval.
He has all the mod cons that a person of his generation in the West is expected to have (a record player, a radio, a car, and a fridge), and socialised with his ‘mates’, dutifully bought a paper every day to keep informed (so say the Press, who have also been watching him), and responded to advertisements appropriately, suggesting a pliable and impressionable consumer. (The newspaper reference does the same thing: think how many times the role of the media in influencing public opinion, especially around Brexit in the UK in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, is discussed.)
Obviously there’s something sinister in all of this, but what Auden manages so deftly here – and in doing so, reminds us of why he was such a master of tone and poetic voice – is the dystopian writer’s trick of presenting all of this in such a cool, ‘official’ manner that it strikes us as more unsettling. The ‘voice’ of the poem (we can’t really call them a speaker or narrator, and perhaps we cannot even call them a ‘them’) is that of an official government report.
This obviously chimes with the idea of the public memorial (such as the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior), but it also enacts the creeping encroachment of the state into people’s private lives, making them public affairs. The fact that the ‘researchers into Public Opinion’ even know, or profess to know, which opinions this Unknown Citizen held at certain times of the year tells us that we are not a million miles away from the world of ‘thoughtcrime’ that Orwell would help to put at the centre of dystopian writing. But Orwell is following Auden rather than the other way around: Nineteen Eighty-Four would be published ten years after Auden wrote ‘The Unknown Citizen’ (although the idea of ‘thoughtcrime’ and the ‘thought police’, and indeed the terms, predate Orwell: they first appeared in 1934 in a book about Japan).
Another way of putting this is to argue that tone is central to the effectiveness of ‘The Unknown Citizen’: if Auden had written a poem from his own perspective, or in his own personal ‘voice’ using the lyric ‘I’, to lament this worrying level of state surveillance, he would have risked coming across as too much of a political poet, a poet who is very obviously trying to make a point in a not particularly sophisticated manner. As Auden’s response to the death of W. B. Yeats, written in the same year as ‘The Unknown Citizen’, demonstrates, he was wary of poetry being used as a mere political tool to ‘make things happen’. The adoption of a flat, bureaucratic state ‘voice’ – a faceless voice, and an impersonal one – gives the poem a dark humour, even while Auden clearly is making a point with the poem.
This adoption of a fictional voice to pay ‘tribute’ to the fictional unknown citizen reaches its most delicious apogee in the poem’s final couplet: this impersonal administrative voice of the government dismisses the question of whether the unknown citizen was ‘free’ or ‘happy’ as absurd. The final line, ‘Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard’, is sinister in its implication (that nothing about this model citizen’s life was unknown to those who monitored him so closely) but also wonderfully sardonic, even ironic, because it reveals the failure of emotional empathy and imagination the state suffers from: they cannot conceive of anything that cannot be reported on, recorded, or gathered as data.
You can listen to Auden reciting ‘The Unknown Citizen’ here.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.