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Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” Poem Interpretation

Wystan Hugh Auden’s poem ” The Unknown Citizen” is a portrayal of a conflict between individualism and government control and the central theme of the poem is the attitude of the government towards its citizen. W H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” is a government’s outlook of the ideal contemporary man in an idealistic culture. In “The Unknown Citizen” the government has controlled individual cleverness to the point that they encompass manage over everyone’s life and intelligence. The reason for the representation of an equivalent civilization is that it will get rid of detestation, jealousy, and conflict. Wystan Hugh Auden has had a honeymoon with political ideologies and learned that poetry could not be a “midwife to society”. Many nations in Europe had resorted to the dictatorship of some sort and the individual citizen was, therefore vanishing as a man of independent views. “The unknown citizen” is a poem belonging to Auden’s middle period of creation and the poem explores the poet’s anxiety for the state of a civilian in the existing mass society.

Poet is the narrator in this poem and it presents the character of the unknown citizen in a way of a memoir. Analyzing the poem a reader can find that in the modern state an average citizen had become a conformist. Obeying the orders of the powers without a demur, he created no problem for them. He considered it his duty to perform whatever he was asked or expected to do. Thus he had become a cent percent harmless mechanism. Even his response to advertisements and political propaganda was predictable. Having surrendered his individuality he was often identified by a number rather than personality features. The subtitle of the poem shows that it is written as a memorial poem. A national monument has been erected by the state for the ideal citizen. The irony lies in the fact that this ideal citizen is a worthless, colorless entity, nothing more than the mechanical part of a highly mechanized society. He represents the mass society and has no distinctive qualities by which one can identify him.

This resentfully ironic poem “The unknown citizen” was written after Auden turn into an American civilian. The title points out the name on the severe of “The unknown soldier” obscured ceremonially after the First World War. The representation is that of a standard civilian who has been examined by computer and information but whose uniqueness is mysterious. The poem “The unknown citizen” begins in a passive voice suggesting the citizen’s lack of personal initiative and his insignificance as an individual. “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be one against whom there was no official complaint”. The bureau of statistics has evaluated the data collected about him and found that he was an ideal citizen. Unlike the old saint who identified himself with god, the modern saint identifies himself with the state, and in this sense, the “The unknown citizen’’ was a saint. He lived for the welfare of his state.

During the war, like all other patriotic citizens, he fought for his nation. When peace reigned, he worked in a factory and was an ideal employee, but at the same time loyal to his trade union and popular with his fellows. He is properly insured and his health card records no serious incident of illness. Research reports of field workers in social psychology and similar other social science indicate that he was aware of the advantages of the installment plan and brought a car, Frigidaire, and other amenities of modern living on an installment basis. By listing them as necessary to modern man, the poet shows the narrow materialistic outlook of the modern man and their dependents on the mechanical gadget. The Opinion Polls show that politically the “unknown citizen “held the proper opinion of the time. He was a pacifist, but ready to fight when necessary. In a nutshell, he had no free will of his own and believed in whatever he was asked to believe in. he was also an opportunist. He had the proper number of five children whose education he entrusted entirely to the state. The most important question in life is whether such a man is free and happy. But in the case of a man who reduced to measurable quantities and who is a slave to statistics, trade unionism, social psychology, and opinion polls, this question is irrelevant. “And our Social Psychology workers found/ that he was popular with his mates and liked a drink”. The state is omniscient like god and claims to know all about the citizens. A citizen is what he is reported to be.

“The unknown citizen” is typical of Auden’s poems, expressing his concern for the state of an individual in the modern mass society. Authoritarian governments were rising to power in his days, and they promoted fascism of sorts. A complete loss of identity, a total submission to the dictates of the state, absolute conformism, readiness to accept all forms of propaganda without questioning are the virtue expected of an ideal citizen in those nations. Kerry Michael Wood remarks;” The society described by Auden is as terrifyingly real as is his individual Unknown Citizen” (Wood)

The individual loses himself in the crowd and becomes a mere cog in the machine of modern society. We have to conform to the rules and regulations set up by the state for its welfare. The well-being of the individual is no great cause for its concern. Auden here raises his voice against such meek submission to the call to confirm. By making effective use of satire, humor, irony, colloquial tone, unemotional language, and awkward rhyming he presents the predicament of modern man. Analyzing the poem one can find that literary devices such as irony, alliteration, and unemotional language are used in the poem. Repetition of consonant sounds provides a specific rhythmic sense. Poet sings; “That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint”

The use of irony, humor makes the poem a social satire. Auden had used a colloquial tone in his poem. Poet uses unemotional language having an awkward rhyming and it also reveals the predicament of modern man. The title itself is an irony that means, for the citizen has mo name and identity and he is identified through a number given by the state. The whole poem explores the sufferings of a man who lost his individuality. Another sign of irony lies here that an ideal citizen is worthless and he is a colorless entity.

To conclude, “The Unknown Citizen” is considered one of the finest poems written by W.H Auden. The poet reveals the identity crisis of modern man through searching for his lost individuality. The modern state never considers citizens’ individuality and they need a kind of mechanical approach. Poet uses an ironic tone with the background of the unemotional language. Effective use of different literary devices such as satire, irony, and alliteration are visible in the poem.


Wood, Kerry. Michael. Poetry Analysis: The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden. Helium. 2010. Web.


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