The Unknown Citizen Summary by W.H. Auden
“The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden describes, through the form of a dystopian report, the life of an unknown man.
The poem begins with the speaker stating the fact that throughout his life there was never one “complaint” against the citizen. No one thought badly of him, in fact, he was more like a “saint” than anything else. The next section of the poem tells of the man’s popularity. He was well liked by his friends, social enough to be normal, and dedicated to his work. The man served the “Community” for his entire life. The only lapse in his work for his company was when he went to serve in the “War,” and now, after he has died.
The speaker also states that the man read the newspapers to a sufficient degree. He went to the hospital once, but left quickly, “cured,” as he should have been. The citizen consumed all the latest technologies, as a “Modern Man” should and owned the proper devices.
In the final section of the poem the speaker concludes his report. He states that the man was “for” war when he was supposed to be, and for “peace,” when the government told him to be. The last lines prompt the questions a reader might have been wondering the whole time. These are things that speaker sees as “absurd.” He states that, of course, the man was happy, the government would have “known” if he wasn’t.
Auden has chosen to craft a speaker for the “Unknown Citizen” who is completely concealed, but strangely familiar. He speaks with a candidness, and emotionless tenor which is hard to connect with. Once the identity of the speaker is a bit clearer though, one might come to recognize the faceless, seemingly lifeless person of a government worker or customer service representative.
The speaker is going about his job, as he would any other day, and is not impacted by the facts he is relaying about the “unknown citizen.” The speaker’s lack of inflection is made up for by the rhymes which are pervasive in his speech.
It was Auden’s goal in this piece to present the words of a dystopian narrator, to the tune of a rhyme. This contrast is quite forceful as the reader will discover throughout the poem’s 32 lines.
The speaker begins by introducing the main subject of the poem, who will never receive a name, or proper identification. The reader will only come to know him through the facts that the “Bureau of Statistics, “the Greater Community,” and other fictional dystopian sounding organizations, have seen fit to share.
The first thing of note that the speaker mentions is that there are no “complaints” logged against this person. No one stepped forward, during their investigation, to say that he had done some wrong. All of the reports that this speaker has at his disposal tell him that the “unknown citizen” is a “saint.” His record is spotless and pristine.
This poem certainly reads like a report and it is interesting to consider why these particular facts about this person’s life were chosen. What do these things really tell about someone? It is important to note that there is nothing deeper discussed in these lines. One cannot come to fully know the “unknown citizen” through this report, hence the irony between the title and the goal of the verses.
In the second set of lines the report continues. Throughout the “unknown citizen’s” life, he did a number of things to serve the community. In fact, he spent his whole life “serv[ing] the Greater Community.” Capitalization is utilized throughout the poem to acknowledge bodies, or official groups that exist in the world of the poem. The citizen served the community up until the day he died. The only exception was when he went to fight in the “War.” Which war this is meant to be is not made clear.
The man did as he was told, dedicated himself to his work, and was continually in the good graces of his employers. So far this person seems incredibly straightforward. There is not much more revealed besides surface level details that anyone could infer.
The man did not have any “odd views” and he always paid his “union dues.” He was on time with payments and was not strange in anyway. That is to say, he did not believe in, or participate in anything, that went against the tenants of this dystopian feeling world.
The man not only did well at work, he was also popular with his friends. They were social, and completely normal. One might at this point be suspicious of the total normalcy that filled this person’s life. Shouldn’t there be more there to see and learn about?
The poem continues and the speaker refers to a number of other organizations that have been keeping an eye on the citizen. The “Press,” presumably a government run news organization, reported to the speaker that the citizen… bought a paper every day and that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
The man was as susceptible to advertising as he was supposed to be, and committed to the news of the day. Continuing in the theme of this dystopia, it is quite likely his life was consumed with the propaganda produced by these agencies. It is hard to know who this person truly was with these purely surface level details.
Additionally, the man went to the hospital, but did not stay long. He left “cured” just as he should. He was sufficiently healthy, and sufficiently interested in acquiring all the appliances a “Modern Man “would need. He had, A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
In the final section of this piece the speaker concludes his report on the “unknown citizen.” The researchers at “Public Opinion,” perhaps the government organization the speaker works for as he uses, “Our,” conclude that the man had all the “proper opinions.” The propaganda was doing its job and the man believed what he was meant to. He was an advocate for what the government told him to be, whether the was “peace” or “war.”
The man’s personal life consisted of a normal wife, and “five children” that were “added…to the population.” The number was not too many or too few, it was just “right” for a man of his “generation.” The final lines of the piece bring greater attention to the absurdity of the poem’s premise. The speaker, as if defending himself, states that the “question” of whether the citizen was “free” or “happy” is absurd. He was certainly happy, otherwise, “we should…have heard.”
LINE WISE SUMMARY
Section I (Epigraph)
The epigraph lets us in on a secret: we’re reading a dramatic poem. It’s all an act. The poem is pretending to be an official celebration of a dead person: the Unknown Citizen. The words are inscribed on a “marble monument” that was paid for by the State, or government. Which government? We don’t know. But referring to “the State” makes it sound very ominous, like George Orwell’s “Big Brother” from 1984. Marble isn’t cheap, and most people can’t afford to use it as a building material. The government, however, has seemingly infinite financial resources to work with, because it takes money from everyone. As for “JS/07 M 378,” we think Auden is just having fun by stringing a bunch of letters and numbers together in some incomprehensible way. It seems that “JS/07 M 378” is how the Unknown Citizen is identified, and the monument is dedicated “To” him. Referring to people in this way is, obviously, very cold and impersonal, but it can also be convenient, so bureaucrats do it all the time. To give a chilling but relevant bit of context, at the time this poem was written, the Nazis were already starting to identify Jewish prisoners with numbered tattoos, though this is not something that Auden would have known. But, in retrospect, this grisly parallel makes the “marble monument” seem that much more sinister. By the way, the monument is clearly a parody of the Tombs of the Unknown Soldier, found in many different nations and dedicated to soldiers who died anonymously in battle. One of the most famous of such tombs lies underneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is a marble monument.
Section II (Lines 1-5)
The poem begins by describing a person referred to as, simply, “He.” We take this to be “The Unknown Citizen,” which makes sense, because his name isn’t known. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to refer to him as “The UC.” The Bureau of Statistics has found that “no official complaint” has been made against our guy, the UC. Now, this is a strange way to start a poem of celebration. It’s a total backhanded compliment. There isn’t any Bureau of Statistics in any country that we know of, but most “bureaus,” or government offices, deal with statistics every day. The Bureau of Statistics seems to be a parody of such “bureaucracies,” which are large, complicated organizations that produce a lot of red tape and official paperwork. If the Bureau of Statistics has information about the UC, then it probably has information about everyone, because, in a certain sense, the UC represents everyone. He’s the average Joe. The fact that there was no “official” complaint against the UC doesn’t tell us much. We don’t know, and from the poem’s perspective, it doesn’t seem to matter. Auden subtly pushes back on the anonymity of the UC in one interesting way, however. The first word of the second line is “One,” which produces a minor joke if you stop reading there: The UC was found to be…One, as in he was found to be a single person: an individual.
Now we have in front of us he “reports on his conduct.” Let’s see: ah, yes, it appears the man was a saint. But not a saint likes St. Francis or Mother Teresa: those are “old-fashioned” saints, who performed miracles and helped feed the hungry and clothe the poor. No, the UC is a “modern” saint, which means that he always served the “Greater Community.” This communit could include the poor and the hungry, but somehow we think that’s not what the speaker has in mind. And the words “Greater Community” are capitalized as if it were a proper name, though it’s not. As in the first two lines, these lines raise more questions than they answer.
Section III (Lines 6-11)
The UC had one of the most boring jobs in the world: factory work. Everything is phrased in the negative. Instead of, “he was great at his job and everybody loved him,” we get, “he never got fired.” It’s another backhanded compliment. We should probably assume that he didn’t work in the factory during the war because he was fighting as a soldier. Formally, these lines sound slightly different than what came before, maybe even a little “off.” The formal structure of these two lines differs from the two preceding lines in two ways. First, the syntax is weird because line 6 begins with the phrase “except for the war,” which we would normally expect to come at the end of a sentence. Secondly, the poem unexpectedly shifts from an ABABA rhyme scheme to a rhyming couplet. This is such a simple and obvious rhyme that it makes the UC’s life sound even more awkward and boring.
Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound so impressive after all. “Satisfied” is a lot more neutral than, say, “thrilled” or “wowed.” But right after this lukewarm praise, we get more negative praise for not being something. The UC was not a “scab” and he didn’t have unusual opinions around the workplace. Unions aren’t nearly as powerful as they used to be, but back in the 1930s, they had the power to cripple major companies through labor strikes assuming there was no one with whom to replace the workers. Although companies were happy to find “scabs,” no one really respected the replacements because they were not team players and only looked out for themselves. The fact that the UC wasn’t a scab is really just another example of his normalcy. He was a good union member and “paid his dues.” More importantly, the union itself was normal, or “sound.” The biggest accusation made about unions during this time was that they were secretly socialist or even communist organizations. The speaker confirms that the UC’s union is neither of those things. In this poem, it seems that everyone is investigating everyone else. Behind all the reassuring clichés, there is a lot of suspicion and paranoia on the part of the State. Finally, these lines are the first to really suggest a particular nation or culture, and the giveaway is “Fudge Motors, Inc.” For one thing, most car manufacturers were located in America in the 1930s. For another, the name of the company sounds a whole lot like Detroit-based “Ford Motors, Inc.” the first and largest auto company in the world at the time. And, yes, “Fudge” is a very silly name, as we’re sure Auden was aware.
Section IV (Lines 12-15)
Now the poem shifts from his employment to his social life. But, don’t worry: there are still comically absurd bureaucrats to provide us with unnecessary information. Even in his carousing with friends, though, the UC takes things in moderation. He likes “a drink,” and the singular form implies that he doesn’t drink too much and isn’t an alcoholic. At the time when Auden wrote the poem, “Social Psychology” was still a relatively new field. Social psychologists study the behavior of humans in groups. This sounds good in concept, but in practice, a lot of the early work done in this field simply pointed out things that were so obvious they didn’t need to be pointed out. It’s like when you read about some scientific study that says that unhappy people are more likely to drink a lot, and you wonder why on earth they needed a study to support such an obvious conclusion. Nonetheless, we have to think that the UC might have been flattered to be getting so much attention from all these intellectual types. That is, if he were still alive.
This is starting to sound like an infomercial you might see for some exercise machine on cable at 3 a.m. There are testimonials galore. Now “The Press,” or news media, offers its take. Of course, they don’t really care about the UC as a person; they’re just glad he seems to have bought a paper every day. Or, rather, they are “convinced” that he did. We’d like to know what convinced them. Not only that, but he also had “normal” reactions to the advertisements in a paper. In short, he’s a good American consumer.
We’re starting to suspect that the government must have an entire room full of paperwork on this guy: Now we are rifling through his health insurance policy, looking for any evidence that he wasn’t a totally straightedge, middle-of-the-road personality. He was “fully insured,” which is sensible. This guy wasn’t exactly a risk-taker. Even though he had insurance, he only went to the hospital once, which means he wasn’t too much of a burden on the health system. He left the hospital “cured”.
They sound like organizations intended to help consumers know what stuff to buy. In fact, they sound suspiciously like the existing Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping, both of which were around when Auden wrote the poem. Both of these groups test out new products and provide ratings. Good Housekeeping, for example, is known for the famous “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” So Producers Research and High-Grade Living have done a little research and learned that the UC used “installment plans” to buy expensive things. This is when you pay for something in small payments over a period of time. Although we don’t use the term “installment plans” very much anymore, the practice remains extremely common. Our love of buying things and paying for them over time is one of the reasons Americans have a larger debt per household than almost any other country. Since installment plan advertising didn’t really begin until the 1920s, Auden probably thought it was weird to buy something you couldn’t afford. We don’t know about you, but we think these are the funniest lines in the poem. The phrase “fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan” is just hilarious, as if being conscious at all required you to know about the Plan.
Section VI (Lines 20-26)
We always think we need more than we really do. This is precisely the idea behind these lines. Obviously, a person doesn’t need a phonograph, radio, car, and frigidaire in order to survive. But if you want to be a hip, “Modern Man,” these things are absolutely “necessary.” We get the impression that the UC’s greatest accomplishment, in the opinion of the speaker, was buying things.
The “researchers into Public Opinion” are like the people nowadays who call your house during dinnertime to ask you who you’re voting for and whether your jeans are stone-washed or boot-cut. The UC didn’t have any weird or “improper” opinions. He was a conformist, which means that he believed what the people around him seemed to believe. He was like a weather vane, going whichever way the wind blew. Indeed, the UC’s beliefs were partly determined by the seasons or “time of year.” Line 24 is also pretty funny. We imagine a pause for comic suspense after word “war.” “When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war……he went.” The line leads us to expect that it will end “he was for war,” but we actually get something much more hesitant.
You’d think that a person’s marriage and children would be one of their biggest accomplishments. But the State doesn’t really care about such intimate concerns, so the bureaucratic speaker only mentions them in passing. From the perspective of the State, it’s good that the UC had so many children because a growing population usually helps a nation’s economy and also ensures that there are enough soldiers just in case a huge world war comes along. “Eugenics” is a term from history that you may not have heard before. It refers to a social movement that believed that the human species could be improved by engineering changes in its gene pool. Eugenics relied on the relatively new fields of genetics and the theory of evolution. This new scientific field was all the rage in the beginning of the twentieth century, until a guy named Adolph Hitler starting adopting its ideas. Most people now agree that eugenics was a disastrous concept, although most of its followers were not as evil as Hitler. The eugenist in this poem thinks he can direct the size of the population by telling people how many kids they should have.
This line is somewhat creepy: the speaker implies that the UC was a good parent because he didn’t “interfere” with the education of his kids. In other words, their education was left up to the control of the State.
The poem ends on a final, rhyming couplet that takes a big detour from the conventional topics that have occupied the speaker so far. Now he asks two questions “Was he free? Was he happy?” That really does seem interesting. These questions are not interesting to the speaker, though, who calls it “absurd.” It’s interesting that these two questions are referred to in the singular, as “the question,” as if being free and being happy was the same thing. In the final line, the speaker explains why the question is absurd: if things had been going badly for the UC, the State would have known about it, seeing as they know everything. The speaker’s confidence in this line “we certainly should have” is downright chilling. But, of course, the big joke here is that the speaker defines happiness in the negative, as things not going wrong, instead of as things going right. From the perspective of the State, it is much more important that people are not desperately unhappy so they don’t rock the boat and stop buying things than it is that they experience personal fulfillment.
Auden implies that the unnamed man was a hard worker and it showed in his work ethic. He was admired in the Union and was not considered a “scab”. He was a worker who would not work under conditions unauthorized by the Union. Auden wanted the reader to understand that the unnamed man could be any man during the time in which the poem was written. This poem was not written about one specific man: “The poem then details all the supposed characteristics that the state finds important to identify and to remember him”. He was respected by his co-workers and was a man whom was very positive. The compliments he received from others proved that he was working toward success..
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