The Unknown Citizen by W.H Auden
All of you would agree with me that poetry is not easy to understand. The poet is a gifted man, an inspired person who packs all his emotions and thoughts into small little words. It is for us to understand the meaning of words, their association with other words and the feelings of the poet in order to understand the message that he wants to convey to us in the poem especially in a poem like The Unknown Citizen. Many questions arise in our mind.
Why has the poet chosen a title that he has?
Why does he want to talk about a citizen who is unknown?
Why doesn’t he use as many metaphors and similes as other poets do?
Now these questions I think come up in your mind but I’m sure you will get the answers as we proceed with the poem.
My objective today is to give you an in-depth analysis and understanding of this poem.
All of you would have read poetry that would have touched your hearts where the poet has transported you into another world- a world of imagination which takes us away far away from the real world in which we live. Keats, for example, in the opening line of one of his most famous odes ‘Ode To a Nightingale ‘ says ;
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Now this line captures our hearts and takes us along with the poet into the world of the nightingale to listen to the song of the nightingale which is so melodious , so happy and so free.
Wordsworth defined poetry as spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. He said that amidst nature he could hear the still sad music of humanity. Don’t we also hear it along with him? We do of course but if we go to The Unknown Citizen with these expectations we are in for a surprise.
W.H Auden does not transport us into another world. he transfixes us to the here and now he talks about the mechanical, the monotonous life that we lead.He succeeds in doing what he sets out to do to tell us how immense is the control of the state over the individual.
The poet in this poem talks about the absolute necessity for man to safeguard his freedom and to protect his happiness from the clutches of the state. He tells us how important it is for man to devote a little bit of time for himself for his freedom and for his little happiness. W. H Davies in his poem Leisure says:
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
W. H Auden in his The Unknown Citizen seems to be completely in compliance with W.H Davis.
Summary of The Unknown Citizen
The poet in this poem tells us how very difficult it is for men to retain his individuality and his identity in a fast-changing techno-savvy world of today. Auden comments on human nature and talks about the endeavor of man to try to fit into the world to which he belongs. He tries to conform to the utmost and in return for that what does he get he is reduced to a number and a statistic. The subtitle of the poem is very ironic. The poet sarcastically alluding to the make-believe concept that the government enforced that every individual should be classified by an alphanumeric tag. He is very critical of the relentless pursuit of the state of the individual. He says that the state does not allow any freedom to the individual, any freedom to enjoy the little acts of unremembered pleasure that Wordsworth speaks off in his poems. The unknown citizen too is ironic. The poet says that everybody knows everything about the citizen but nobody knows his name. Is that possible question? Suppose we also feel this question arising in our mind.A modernist W.H Auden was very concerned about the modern idea of man losing his identity in the fast-paced technological world of today.He is very critical of the state taking control over the individual. In the unknown citizen he tells us that all the organizations of the government and research agencies are very happy with the unknown citizen because he does everything right at the right time. He is a model of compliance. He listens to every dictate of the state. He is a loyal and a friendly man. He generates revenue to the government because he believes in the installment schemes. He has everything that a modern man needs to have – a gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire. The poet mocks the citizen who relinquishes his identity in order to serve the state.The state expects these sacrifices from the individual.
W.H Auden a modernist was very concerned about the modern idea of man losing his identity in the fast-paced world of today. The three dangers that Auden mensions in this poem and which are really the dangers that man has to face today are anonymity conformity and the state control over theindividual. The man has to really fight against these forces in order to retain his happiness and his individuality.The state-run organizations and research agencies that the poet mentions are all very happy with the unknown citizen because he does all the right things at the right time. He is a loyal worker very sincere and faithful. He generates a lot of revenue to the government because he understands the benefits of the installment schemes. He spends a lot of money in buying things which are taxable and in this way he helps the government. He is a very sociable and friendly man and he also has the right number of children.
The poet criticizes the individual who relinquishes his happiness and his freedom in order to serve the state. The state expects these sacrifices from the modern-day Saint. A saint who does not like in the past lead a holy life or seek profound truths but the one who sacrifices his all for the sake of the state. This is the gist of The Unknown Citizen It is very clear from this to understand what Auden wanted us to understand.
Analysis of The Unknown Citizen
Now we will go into detailed analysis of the poem. At the very beginning of the poem we get a sense of the immense control of the state over the individual. The poet talks about how indifferent and impersonal the attitude of the government towards the individual is. The poem is written from the point of view of a fictional bureaucrat who sits at his desk shuffling papers all day little knowing or caring that the decisions that he makes affect the lives of individuals -the individuals that he hasn’t even seen in his lifetime. The state assumes a Big Brother like attitude much like Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s a brave new world in that that the state pretends to be all-knowing except for the things that really matter.
The very first line of the poem introduces us to the Bureau of Statistics and its findings. What has the Bureau of Statistics found about the unknown citizen that his conduct was excellent and that there was no written complaint ever about him. In a modern sense of an old-fashioned word he was a saint said the poet. We should understand from this line that the modern meaning of the word Saint meant one who sacrificed as everything to listen to the dictates of the state. The poet then goes on to tell us about the work history of the unknown citizen. He worked for a company which was called Fudge Motors Incorporated and in the day of retirement he was he worked loyally for this company except during the time of war when he went to war. The poet then talks about the trade union to which the unknown citizen belonged. The Union acknowledged his loyalty and as attained his normalcy.The union reported that he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views. He also paid his dues.
The next line of the poem that our reports on the union said that the opinion of the union was sound tells us of the immense control of the state over the individual. It doesn’t leave him any privacy, any freedom to be on his own. That the citizen was an amiable and sociable man is reported by the Social Psychology workers .The Social Psychology workers, researchers report that he loved to share a drink with his mates it was. It should be noted that it was the pastime of the era that when workers worked for long hours in the factory while returning home stopped at a pub and had a drink as attains the normalcy of the unknown citizen.
The word popular further enhances the citizens compliance with the given and the accepted. As a conscientious man he bought a newspaper every day and his reaction to advertisements were normal in every way. The policy is taken out in his name proof that he was fully insured. His health card said that he was only once in hospital but he left it cured.
Producers Research and High-Grade Living reported that he was fully sensible to the installment plan. He had everything that a modern man needed to have to lead a comfortable life. He had a gramophone, a car, a frigidaire and a radio.
The next few lines talk about the family of the unknown citizen. He was married and he had five children- the right number of children according to the population expert that a parent of his generation needed to have. The poet says that all the government agencies and research organizations were happy with the individual like the Bureau of Statistics, Producers Research and High-Grade Living, the medical department, the press and so on and so forth.
The last couplet which speaks about the individuals own happiness and freedom is very hard-hitting. The poet asks us, despite fulfilling all the expectations of the state, is the individual happy? Is he free? and the last line of the poem which says that had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard tells us of the suffocating control that the state puts the individual under.
The clinical tone which the poet adopts is very apt to describe the flawed methods of the government which based their judgment of an individual on reports and documents of his conformity and his normalcy.
The poem was written in early years of the 20th century. Today we are into the early years of the 21st century. The so many years have elapsed since the writing of the poem The poem still rings true today. The poet tells us that man in his earnestness to fulfill the expectations of a good citizen becomes an unknown citizen.
The poem is very ironical in its tone. What is irony? Irony is a mode of speech where the real meaning is exactly the opposite of what is literally conveyed. I give you an example of irony. My class today all of you know is from 10:00 to 11:00 o’clock. All of you are seated when I come into the class but there is one student who enters a class at 10 minutes to 11. I look at the student and I say this ‘ Oh! good morning, I’m so happy that you’re in time for the next class!’ Actually, I’m not happy with the individual for coming late but in fact I’m angry and I’m ironical in my tone.
The best example of irony from literature that I can quote is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I would like to read a few sentences of the speech of Antony from Julius Caesar :
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
What better example of irony can we get than this. After reading of the poem we conclude that the poem is extremely ironic. From the title to the subtitle to the content of the entire poem the poet means one thing and says another.I hope all of you have enjoyed the poem along with me.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1. What does the title of the poem ‘unknown citizen’ signify?
The title of the poem ‘unknown citizen’ signifies that the citizen is thoroughly unknown because he doesn’t have any personality or individuality of his own. His name doesn’t bear any importance and it has reduced to a mere identity number.
2. What does the sub-title of the poem ‘Unknown Citizen’ suggest?
The sub-title of the poem suggests that the citizen doesn’t possess any individuality of his own. He has reduced himself to be a mere number – the number of his identity card.
3. What according to Auden does the word ‘Saint’ mean in the modern age?
According to Auden, the word ‘Saint’ in the modern age means any man who is subservient to the wishes and aspirations of the government.
4. Where was the unknown citizen working? When did he leave his job?
The unknown citizen was working in a factory named Fudge Motors Inc. He left his job only once. It was to join the army to fight for his country. (Fudge Motors Inc.)
5. What did the social psychology workers find about the Unknown citizen?
The social psychology workers found that the Unknown citizen was popular among his fellow-workers and enjoyed the company of friends
6. What did the press say about the Unknown citizen?
The press said that the unknown citizen bought a newspaper everyday and
responded to the advertisements properly.
7. What did the health card of the unknown citizen show?
The Health card of the unknown citizen showed that he was hospitalized only once in his lifetime. He had left the hospital after getting his disease cured completely.
8. What did Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare about the unknown citizen?
Producers Research and High-Grade Living declared that the unknown citizen was fully aware of the advantages of the instalment plan. They said that he had bought phonograph, radio, car, fridge etc on instalment basis.
9. What did the Eugenist say about the unknown citizen?
The Eugenist said that the unknown citizen had begotten five children and it was the right number of children the government needed then.
10. What did the teachers say about the Unknown Citizen as a parent?
The teacher said that the children of the Unknown Citizen were getting the proper education that the government had insisted. As a father, the Unknown Citizen never interfered with their education.
11. Who is being attacked in this satire?
The bureaucratic society where the individual is reduced to a cipher; where conformity is promoted instead of individuality.
1. Short note on the unknown citizen.
As far as the modern dictatorial government is concerned, the unknown citizen is the ideal citizen. The government wants all the citizens to be like him. He has surrendered his own individuality in order to conform himself to the wishes of the government. He hasn’t ever created any problems to the government. He has performed everything that the government wanted from every citizen. He has worked in a factory until his retirement. He has been a member in the trade union and paid all his dues properly. He has availed himself of the instalment system and purchased the essential amenities for the house- hold. He has five children and he hasn’t interfered with their education as the government desired. The Unknown Citizen has been healthy, free and happy. The government has erected a monument for the Unknown Citizen for being an ideal citizen.
2. Irony in the poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’.
The poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ is a satire. W. H. Auden employs irony in the poem which is reflected even in the title. It is about the unknown citizen who is hard to find in the society. It is the wish of the dictatorial government to have such a citizen. The sub-title of the poem says ironically that the unknown citizen doesn’t have any individuality. He has lost even his name. He has reduced himself to an inanimate thing. The dictatorial government has made a number of agencies to maintain their policies. We hear about the citizen not through his individuality but through the Bureau of Statistics. The citizens are being controlled by the secret agencies of the government. These agencies hold the public opinion of the government. The government dictates what a citizen should do and what he should not. It is very ironically said that the unknown citizen is free and happy. It means that if any citizen conforms to the wishes of the government by sacrificing his individuality, he will be free and happy. The government will erect marble monument for him as a token of its gratitude.
ESSAY TYPE QUESTION
1.Critical appreciation of the poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’
W. H. Auden was one of the famous poets of the Twentieth Century. He had written a large number of poems and won many prizes. He had been a professor of poetry at Oxford. He is remarkable for his versatility and fluency. He explores the social and political problems and makes the people think in a rational and moral way.
The poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ is a satire. It ridicules the average citizen who surrenders his own individuality and accepts the wishes or the policies of a dictatorial government. It is about the ideal citizen as seen by the government. The dictatorial government has erected a marble monument for the unknown citizen for conforming the views and policies of the government promptly and completely. This poem is written on the marble in the form of a valuable inscription. It is abundant with irony or ironical statements.
In large cities, monuments are erected for the memory of the unknown soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of the country. These monuments are the pride of the nation. The poet says very ironically that the government has erected a marble monument in the memory of an unknown citizen. The name of the citizen is not written on the marble. But, the number of his identity card is used instead of his name. This shows that the unknown citizen doesn’t possess any individuality of his own. But, as far as the government is concerned, the unknown citizen is their ideal hero. Hence, his life history is inscribed on the marble for others to imitate.
The Bureau of Statistics says that the unknown citizen is like a saint. They do not like to call him a saint because they think that the word saint has lost its significance in the modern age. It says also that the conduct of the unknown citizen is agreed by all agencies of the government. It is also agreed that the government can never raise any complaint against him as a citizen.
The unknown citizen was working in a factory named fudge Motors Inc. until his retirement. He left his job only once to join the army to fight for his country. As a worker, he made all his employers satisfied and he had never got punished or dismissed. He was a member in a trade union. He paid all his dues promptly and never worked against his union. He was perfectly normal in his attitude to people and was popular among his friends and enjoyed their company.
The press remarked that the unknown citizen had good habits. He bought a newspaper everyday and read the advertisements. His health card showed that he had insured his life fully. He had fallen ill only once in his life-time and left the hospital after curing the disease. This showed that he was a healthy person. The commercial institution remarked that he was aware of the instalment system and bought essential things through hire-purchase system as the government wanted. In addition to that, the unknown citizen was satisfied with the public-opinion held by the government agencies. He simply accepted peace when it was a peace-time and joined the army for the country when war was declared. This shows that he was not at all self-reliant.
The unknown citizen had five children. He added his share to the population of the country as the government wanted. Even the education of his children were left to the government’s decision or policies.
Auden ends the poem sarcastically. He says that he does not know whether the unknown citizen has been free or happy. The government is of the opinion that the citizen who conforms the ideas or the policies of the government without any question will always be happy and remarked that if he had complaints, they would have known it earlier through their different spies or agencies.
The qualities prescribed by the government for becoming an ideal citizen is quite ironic. They want their citizens to be passive or conforming so that the government can last for a long time.