The Unknown Citizen
"The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden, is a commentary on government and the materialism of modern man. The poem is written in the form of an obituary inscribed on a monument built by the government in commemoration of an average, upstanding, and decent community member. Throughout the passage, the speaker lists facts about the citizen's life which he believes prove that the deceased was a valuable person. In actuality these facts represent nothing more than the socially accepted values and actions instilled in society by materialistic views. This makes the government appear unconcerned with the true thoughts and feelings of its people, seeing them only as statistics. We can see this in the subtitle "To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State". The citizen is being referred to by a number rather than a name.
Auden was very wise in choosing a title for this poem. The Unknown Citizen represents the common man, singular in his desires and attitudes, respected for the same reasons. He is unknown in the sense that his government and perhaps his peers were unaware of his true emotions and ideals, only looking at his exterior image as he did what he believed he was suppose to do. In the inscription the speaker portrays that the citizen lived a worthwhile and happy life, basing this assumption on reports and facts gathered from sources such as the Bureau of Statistics, the Press, and other government agencies. For the most part, the citizen is praised for following the accepted pattern of conduct in his day, from fighting in the War to being a hard worker and loyal union member to using a credit card. And if he hadn't lived like this he wouldn't have had his phonograph, radio, car, and frigidaire. However, it was also this conduct that turned him into a follower, unable to make decisions for himself. This is shown in lines 23 and 24 when the speaker says, "he held the proper opinions for the time of year; When there was peace, he...
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