The Unknown Citizen


The Poem “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden

is a satire. Its narrator is the state. In this, the state pays tribute and describes

a successful and positive product of its efficiency and effectiveness. In other

words, it builds the character later described to the reader as “the perfect

citizen.” The narrator speaks as if he is delivering a speech or common tribute

using words and phrases that are familiar to the reader. Using such imagery

helps the reader paint a clear picture of the character. The subject or

character is illustrated as a hardworking, common, tax paying, proud – to –

be American citizen living in an obvious post Depression setting. The post

Depression setting is key, as the reader knows during that time bracket in

History, citizens went on the hunt for what was known as the “American

Dream.” A driving force to recover and reinvent as well as the thirst to

prosper. The government (or state, as described earlier) by use of statistics

wanted to not only show, but also greatly embellish and make grand, its

effectiveness and success in its recovery and prosper. The narrator takes a

sincere yet ironically humorous approach in doing so. Humorous and ironic

because the reader knows that no such person exists as the “perfect citizen”

as described in this poem. It is found that the poem is set during the post

depression and post war period. Supported by the picture painted in the

minds of the audience by the speaker’s content. In his content he mentions

words and phrases such as; (6) Except for the war ‘til the day he retired” (6)

“He worked in a factory” (10) “For the Union reports that he paid his dues”

(24) “When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he

went.” The audience knows that the work in factories; formation, existence,

and belonging of unions; talk of war and peace; are all associated with the

post Depression/war era. By that we can define our setting and later on helps

us begin our characterization. The narrator uses words and phrases familiar to

the reader such as (8), “Fudge Motors Inc.”; the reader would think it to be

Ford Motors Inc. A technique used by the author for both imagery and humor

purposes. The narrator describes the subject in a way that is like the character

himself. Common, conversational, easy to understand with a touch of

understood humor. The author uses examples from daily life to get the point of

humor and fact across to the reader. (20) “And he had everything necessary

to the Modern Man” (21) “ A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire.”

(25 & 26) “He was married and added five children to the population, Which

our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.” Lines

5-15 are clear and accurate examples the narrator gives in better quality detail

to clearly state the character’s success in his being common. Although, the

above is found to be satirical. The narrator goes on to describe a man that he

himself does not personally know. The character is a nicely complied group of

statistics to describe the nonexistent “perfect citizen.” (1) “ He was found by

the Bureau of Statistics to be (2) One against whom there was no official

complaint.” (5) For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.”

(7) He worked in a factory and never got fired.” The irony comes into play

because the audience knows that there is no such person as the “perfect

citizen.” The citizen(s) did complain. The complaints fell upon deaf ears that

did not choose to hear or accept them. Why should the state believe that there

were flaws in the perfect society of their subject? After all, the Bureau of

Statistics did prove such perfection by their records and statistics. And the

Bureau does state, challenge, and answer such questions by lines 28 & 29.

(28 & 29) “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had

anything been wrong we should have certainly have heard.” Notice in line 1

the use of the phrase, “was found”, the word “found” is key. It proves that the

state had no solid evidence of a “perfect citizen.” Just an implied creation

based upon fact on paper. The poem and the statements made within it were

very far fetched from reality because they weren’t based on a true story about

a living, breathing, human being. The poem is a clear criticism of our society,

our government, and