The Unknown Citizen
Analyzing W.H Auden’s Poem, The Unknown Citizen
“The Unknown Citizen”
The title of this poem, “The Unknown Citizen”, is the only time this phrase is mentioned and is basically the key that the reader will not know the identity of the man. The speaker sounds as if he’s reading off a eulogy that brings out an ironic contrast of this poor man’s life. Although the speaker commends the citizen, his word choices reveal a patronizing tone. He talks about the citizen as if he was a good little boy and the speaker was the teacher. The reader is given countless information about the man, yet none of it is personal. The rhyme scheme in this poem makes the tone sound a bit humorous but for the most part it’s ironic and sarcastic. At the end, the speaker states that had anything been wrong with man, they would have certainly have heard. But when asked if the man was happy or free, the speaker claims the question is absurd.
The diction in this poem can be considered complex. The reader could analyze this poem over and over again, and would probably have a different opinion about the poem. It’s as is Auden wanted the reader to want to know more to be able to fill in the gaps. The syntax in this poem is unusual, in line 5-6 it says, “For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. Except for the War till the day he retired” stating that the man was a saint all throughout his life except for when he was called away to war. The vocabulary in this poem is also old-timey, for example the man was said to have “Everything necessary to a Modern Man, A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a Frigidaire”. This gives the readers the sense that Auden probably wrote this poem during World War II.
This poem doesn’t use a lot of similes and metaphors. In fact, at times it seems deliberately un-poetic. The only metaphor found was the comparison between the Unknown Citizen and a saint. The word “saint” is a religious term, so the Unknown Citizen can’t actually be one, except in the modern sense. In line 20, it is said that the man had everything necessary but mentions nothing about the basic necessities needed to survive like food, water, etc., making this a hyperbole.
Auden did not use hardly any sound devices in this poem, well at least not many that one could pick out. Which is a little odd given that most poets use this to their advantage to create a greater emotional response from the reader. He certainly had many opportunities to and may have made the poem a little more interesting had he done so. The only thing I was able to pick up on was the use of alliteration here and there. For example, in line 21 it says, “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire” where the consonant being repeated would be the vowel A.
Once read out loud, I was able to see that this poem did not follow a standard rhyme scheme. It alternates between a few different, simple rhyme schemes. The poem begins with an ABAB pattern, but then switches to a rhyming couple but after that he starts hopping around after a bit. Line 8-13 follow the pattern ABBCCA, the rhyme scheme beginning with the word “Inc.”. I wasn’t sure Auden was going to be able to create a rhyme but sure enough in line 13 he uses “drink”. The two words are so far away that I didn’t even know they rhymed until I read the poem out loud a few times. Finally, the rhythm of the poem roughly centers on the anapest, a metrical foot that has two unstressed beats followed by a stressed beat. For example in the beginning, “He was FOUND by the BUReau of STATistics . . .”
One major theme of this poem would be the pressing concept that we don’t know the identity of this man. The readers are not given a reason as to why the citizen is unknown but left to come up with a reason on their own. This poem follows the idea that the man followed the rules and lived his life the way our parents inform us to. The “right” way to live is to find a job, get married, and have a family, which is what everyone believes to be happiness. The man never distinguished in any way from his fellow citizens. Instead he was just like everyone else, doing the same routine day in and day out, and buying the same things necessary for a “Modern Man”. The speaker even goes as far as stating in lines 23-24 “That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year; When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.” Giving the readers the sense that the man was like a drone, and living life on auto-pilot.
An Analysis of Irony in The Unknown Citizen, Rite of Passage and Bully
Writers often use many tools while writing. Irony is just one example. When writers want their words to have a double meaning, they use irony. It is often clear when the words of the narrator or character of the writing is different from the meaning that the writer is implying. Irony is present in the poems, “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H Auden, “Rite of Passage” by Sharon Olds, and “Bully” by Martin Espada.
In the poem “The Unknown Citizen”, Auden’s use of irony is easy to see. In this poem he is describing a citizen who is essentially unremarkable. This person has not done anything wrong, and describes him by saying, “and all the reports on his conduct agree, that, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint”. The fact that he has written a poem which is praising someone for being so mediocre is ironic in itself. Another use of irony in this poem is when Auden says, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” With this quote, Auden is saying that there could be nothing wrong with this citizen. However, because of his use of irony, his words have another meaning. Auden is implying that even though he lived a boring life where he did no wrong, it doesn’t necessarily mean he was completely happy.
“Rite of Passage” by Sharon Olds includes irony as well. This poem talks about children at a party, but holds a deeper meaning. When Olds describes the scene as “a room full of small bankers, they fold their arms and frown,” this is an example of irony because while it sounds like she is describing adults, she is actually describing the children. Another example of irony that Olds uses in this poem is when she says, “like Generals, they relax and get down to playing war, celebrating my son’s life.” This line shows her use of irony because WWII was happening when this poem was written. War is obviously a terrible thing, but this example is ironic because the children are casually playing it, having a good time, and doing it all while celebrating her son’s birthday. A birthday is the celebration of another year of someone’s life, but these children are playing a game that is about death.
The poem “Bully” is another good example of a poem that contains irony. Espada describes this school by saying, “now the Roosevelt school is pronounced Hernandez”. Espada continues by saying that “Roosevelt is surrounded by all the faces he ever shoved in eugenic spite,” which is an example of his irony. This is ironic because this school was named after Roosevelt, someone who participated in the Spanish-American war. However the children that now fill the school are spanish speaking children. They depict the type of people that Roosevelt fought against, but now they attend his school and “plot to spray graffiti in parrot-brilliant colors across the Victorian mustache and monocle”.
Writers and poets often use irony in their work. It is a tool used to make their words have multiple meanings. Sometimes it can be hard to see at first. “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H Auden, “Rite of Passage” by Sharon Olds, and “Bully” by Martin Espada all are poems that include good examples of the use of irony.
A Short Reflection On The Unknown Citizen By W.H Auden
Does an individual’s background or attitude affect how they are viewed in society? The poem “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox and the poem “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden imply that background and attitude can affect how an individual is viewed and treated in society. Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” and Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” share the themes of the individual versus society and the happiness within, but “Solitude” focuses on how a person’s emotions and attitude affects their part in society, while “The Unknown Citizen” focuses on how an individuals background and place in society can affect they are perceived.
Wilcox and Auden demonstrate the idea of the individual versus society and the happiness, or lack thereof, within a society in each of their poems. Wilcox illustrates the idea of the individual versus society throughout “Solitude,” but the strongest example in her poem would be: “Be glad, and your friends are many: / Be sad, and you lose them all” (Wilcox 13-14). Wilcox is stating that when an individual is happy they will find themselves surrounded by company looking to share in their happiness, however, when an individual is sad or depressed that companionship dissipates because people do not want to be brought down by an individual’s grieving. Auden also creates the idea of the individual versus society in “The Unknown Citizen” and makes it clear in the last two lines of his poem: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” (Auden 28-29). Auden’s quote takes on a sarcastic tone and states that even though the unknown citizen meets the standards society places on a person, including contentment with ones life, there is no way of knowing whether a human is happy with their life based solely on their personal background and placement in society. Although Wilcox and Auden both utilize themes of the individual versus society, both poets use two entirely different approaches to make that point.
Wilcox shows how an individual’s emotion and attitude can affect an individual’s place in society while Auden illustrates how an individuals background and place in society can shape how they are perceived by that society. Wilcox again and again uses lines in “Solitude” that all come to the same meaning; if a person is happy they will be embraced by society, but if an individual is unhappy they are shunned from the world around them. Wilcox’s poems became and still remain popular, and Gail Shivel, author of the biographical essay “Wilcox, Ella Wheeler,” speculates as to why this is: “Although it is commonplace to focus on the emotional content of her work, it is important to note that her popularity probably has more to do with her craft.” (Shivel, 70). Auden also had a craft of his own and it is noticed in “The Unknown Citizen.” Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” is a poem that turns an individual into just another statistic, and it can be said that the unknown citizen could be anyone at all. The unknown citizen of this poem, based on their personal history and place in society during their lifetime, was speculated by society to have been happy and figured that if he was not, they would have known.
Wilcox’s “Solitude” and Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” both demonstrate the idea of the individual versus society and how ones happiness can affect their place in society. Wilcox focuses on how and individual’s emotions create their place in society while Auden focuses on an individual’s personal background to place them within a society. Both of these poems illustrate the idea of the individual versus society, which is an obstacle that every human being will face at some point in their life, whether it is due to the individuals attitude or background. Society has a way of telling us exactly who we should be and how we’re expected to act, and Auden and Wilcox display this idea beautifully in each of their poems.
Morality And Political Problems as Depicted in The Unknown Citizen And Spain By Auden
A composer’s representation of political motivations and actions may influence an individual and broader society. W. H. Auden reflects on moral and political issues of his context in the poems The Unknown Citizen (1939) and Spain (1937), to criticise the indoctrination and manipulation of the people by political systems and advocate for individuality. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List (1993) reflects on the suffering of individuals during the Holocaust to emphasise the importance of freedom and action against political turmoil. Both Auden and Spielberg manipulate textual form and language choices to convey a politically astute message and urge individuals to engage in political conflicts.
In The Unknown Citizen, Auden urges his audience to ridicule bureaucratic government which favour conformity and anonymity through his satirical representation of the perfect, unknown citizen. Auden, an Englishman who moved back to “the colonies” in 1939, expresses his culture shock when confronted with American-style chaos and consumerism and reveals his exasperation with the submissive attitudes and ignorance idolised by the US government. Through the alphanumeric identification of the model citizen, “JS/07 M 378,” Auden reveals the death of individuality. He implies the citizen is reduced to a “cog” in society through the mechanical rhythm of the text, established by the iambic tetrameter, to criticise conformity. Auden’s sardonic tone in, “his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way,” warns his audience about the government’s ability to psychological manipulate acquiescent citizens. Thus, he urges his audience to challenge the industrialist’s expectation through the accumulation, “a photograph, a radio, a car,” which implies the citizen is a perpetual mental slave to commercialism. Auden insinuates that governments value socio-political obedience over autonomy through the rhetorical questions, “Was he free? Was he happy?” to encourage his audience to fight oppressive regimes. Hence, Auden’s satire represents the debilitating effects of political pressures on individuals.
Similarly, Spielberg contrasts a brutal government’s corrupt interests to an individual’s heroic desire to save persecuted citizens to urge his audience to advocate for action against oppressive political systems. Spielberg represents the Holocaust in 1939 after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935. Schindler initially exploits Jews for economic profit, but upon witnessing the inhumanities committed against them, decides to save them by keeping them employed. Spielberg champions religious freedom before the War through the symbolic use of warm colours at the film’s start which represents Jewish Sabbath. However, the transition cut to greyscale foreshadows their political imprisonment. Spielberg represents how political persecution can scar children in a long crane shot of a small girl in a red coat as she walks amongst SS Officers and Jews. Her salient red coat symbolises bloodshed while the diegetic gunfire distresses the audience to urge them to acknowledge the Holocaust’s atrocities. The low angle close-up of Schindler’s paralysed expressions as he witnesses Jews being shot on the street, reveals his sympathy for their unjust political treatment. Though both Auden and Spielberg encourage viewers to condemn political supremacy, Spielberg also encourages engagement with confronting political events in order to challenge an individual’s conscience. Through Spielberg’s representation of the Holocaust, he encourages readers to condemn political persecution and its dehumanising effects on people.
In Spain, Auden represents the people’s inaction during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to urge his audience to engage in political conflict because it contributes to cultural history. Although Auden was a leftist American intellectual who supported the Republicans, he witnessed the brutal struggle between democracy and fascism during the war and urges humanity to act to achieve a better future. Auden champions mankind’s technological evolution through the alliteration in, “the counting-frame and the cromlech,” which symbolises religious, philosophical and intellectual advances. Whilst his allusion to Zeus in, “belief in the absolute value of Greek,” commends human imagination and strength, the juxtaposition to the truncated syntax, “but to-day the struggle,” reveals how political conflict disrupts human progress. Through the damning apostrophe, “O descend as a dove or a furious papa,” Auden criticises reluctance to engage in political affairs. However, he offers hope in the the juxtaposition, “Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom,” which argues the need to act for a better future. He encourages his audience to engage and resolve political struggles through the metaphor, “tomorrow the hour of the pageant-master,” to advocate for societal progress. Thus, Auden represents the power of conflicting political perspectives to shape people’s motivations and urges individuals to not be passive to achieve a better future.
Spielberg represents antithetical personal and political devotions to urge his audience to take action against political turmoil. Oskar Schindler, a compulsive industrialist and womaniser, was an unlikely hero, memorialised through his emancipation of 1200 Jews during Hitler’s regime in WWII. Spielberg criticises Schindler’s excessive opulence and material obsession driven by political motivations in the close-up propaganda imagery of the swastika and SS logo, starkly contrasted to the long shot of oppressed Jews. However, in a two-shot between angry Schindler and a woman pleading for her parents to be saved, the director reveals Schindler’s inner conflict between loyalty to the party and his developing empathy. Both Auden and Spielberg inspire audiences to act against political injustice in order to restore social and political cohesion. Spielberg frames the money negotiations between SS Officers and the Jews behind salient metal bars to criticise the corruption within his society and to emphasise Schindler’s heroic transformation. The close-up of Schindler’s gift to the Jews, a gold ring engraved with the idiomatic text, “He who saves a life, saves the world” commends Schindler’s altruism and encourages viewers to act righteously in the face of political injustice. Hence, Spielberg represents political corruption to emphasise the need for moral empowerment to resolve political crises.
Ultimately, both Auden and Spielberg use their textual forms to communicate how power and control – driven systems neglect individuals of their universal human rights such as individuality and freedom. Thus, the representation of people and politics are critical in understanding the relationship between political motivations and their impacts.