The Unknown Citizen
The Theme of Lost Identity in Refugee Ship, Richard Cory, and Unknown Citizen
As individuals, we all want the best out of life. In difficult times, we branch out to other people that we consider to be in similar situations. Despite being so afraid, it is still possible for us to feel empathy and share compassion for other people. Fear of lost identification led to multiple speakers attempting to locate their place in America. While Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Refugee Ship” captures the experience of a person stuck in between two cultures, Edwin Arlington Robertson’s “Richard Cory” and W. H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” exposes the feelings of appearances versus reality of the world.
Motivated by the search of identity, Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Refugee Ship” is a powerful cry to language, written for the book, Emplumada (1981). In this poem, Lorna goes into depth of race and family. The speaker is aware of the history but not completely infused because she has never learned Spanish. This has always been an issue for the speaker. She admits, “Mama raised me without language” (Cervantes 5). Lorna uses this to focus on her origin, yet emphasizes how the culture is alienated. Her style of writing, using the metaphorical ship adds to the journey of her bloodline. She describes, “I feel I am a captive aboard the refugee ship. The ship that will never dock” (Cervantes 10,11,12). The craft is at sea with its confused passengers hoping for a place to land. Despite them being physically there, they accept that the ship will never reach “safety”. Since there isn’t an end to the passage, the speaker’s feelings will remain the same as well.
Edwin Arlington Robinson uses connotation in “Richard Cory” in a way that speaks the truth about human conditions. He writes as if the poem could have been published recently, as a society, people are still being placed on high pedestals. The “man that has it all” is Richard Cory, who is described as, “… a gentleman from sole to crown, … imperially slim, and admirably schooled in every grace” (Robinson 3,4,10). Robinson considers the differences in financial status between the two. The people stood aside and watched while Richard Cory came to downtown: the level of the townspeople. To have the chance to speak with him, the people became excited. The people dreamed of being as high on the pedestal.The people sacrificed, pushing themselves to the fullest in order to be exactly like him. Then, suddenly Richard Cory commits suicide. This is a message that Richard Cory wanted to leave behind to the townspeople. Killing himself represents that true happiness can never be purchased and that appearances can be quite deceiving.
This poem written by W. H. Auden, in 1939, “Unknown Citizen” emphasizes a citizen who to the state was considered as a “saint”. Satire is used against the speaker to make clear that the citizen,serving the “Greater Community”, has lost his identity. This way of writing helps Auden brings out the irony between the words of the speaker who presents the poem and the thoughts of the poet. He confirms, “And all the reports on his conduct agree that, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint” (Auden 3,4). To insist on the sainthood, the speaker adds “He worked in a factory and never got fired, but satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.” (Auden 7,8). The speaker is satisfied with the behavior of the citizen, however the poem allows the readers to evaluate the standards that are judging him. Auden expresses his attitude including connotation of “Was he free? Was he happy?” (Auden 28), and obscurity of “The question is absurd. Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (Auden 28,29).
The poems’ focus on the experiences of the characters helps analyze a sense of attempting to regain back their lost identities. By bringing the reader closer to their “locations” through layers of words, and the figure of speech symbolizing the messages that are within, the poems define the dislocation of each individual. These poems offer the readers a rare opportunity to discover the extensive effects of experience alienation among America.
The Crisis of Identity in the Unknown Citizen
Identity is defined as the qualities and beliefs that make a particular person distinguishable from others. Developing an identity is an integral milestone of life as if affects how mankind understands and experiences the world. W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen”, conveys an ideal scenario of what of what an identity consists of. Even the title of the poem itself suggests the life of an ordinary, average, and uneventful life. The title also alludes to the tomb of the “Unknown Soldier.” Many countries use this term to honor soldiers who died in battle anonymously, and while the character in this poem is no warrior, he will end up the same way as those soldiers: unknown. Through a variety of poetic devices including tone and irony, W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen” conveys a theme of identity, or in this case, the lack thereof.
Going about His Normal Life
The poem begins with an ironic commemoration to the unknown citizen that seems to be honoring the man: “To JS/07 M 378 / This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State”. However, the poem then uses a satirical tone to demonstrate that the citizen has done nothing extraordinary in his life by stating that “The Bureau of Statistics” (1) had looked upon all the information they had on this individual and found no wrong or anything to raise a grievance about: “One against whom there was no official complaint” (2). The civilian paid his dues and had no eccentric views; He simply lives his life in an ordinary and monotonous way, with no indication of a desire for self-improvement.
The poem continues and states that this individual is described as a “saint” (4), which in this scenario, refers to an individual who has been acknowledged as holy or virtuous, meaning that this citizen has done nothing to raise suspicion about trouble in his life. The speaker portrays this character as unknowingly camouflaging himself. This man is going about his normal life and has no knowledge that he is completely indistinguishable from his fellow citizens other than by a number.
The crisis of identity continues throughout the rest of the poem. To illustrate, the narrator explains that “He worked in a factory and never got fired, / But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc” (7-8). This man was involved in his community and retained the same job for the majority of his life, never raising any complaints. The following verse then brings in societal views to describe the man: “He wasn’t a scab or odd in his views” (9). The word scab is referring to a person being opposed to following the crowd in their decisions and choices. Therefore, not only does this individual blend in with his fellow citizens, he also thinks and behaves like them. He seems to slide by in day to day life which results in having little to no attention brought to himself as he takes care of the debt he owes to the community, just as a model citizen ought to. There is an inverse relationship in that the more than man conforms to society, the less noticeable he becomes.
The poem continues and brings “Social Psychology workers” (12) into the mix, which brings up the topic of truly knowing people. The government employs workers to find out more about their citizens’ lives and yet they know nothing about them other than the statistics from their studies. The government sees this citizen as a number, not as a real person with unique qualities that set him apart from others.
Furthermore, the narrator describes that “he was popular with his mates and liked a drink” (13). This serves as proof that this person had a social life. The speaker is painting a picture that, even though the man was popular among the people, the government took no notice as they could not see past their data into what really mattered. The narrator also reports that “Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured” (16) which is indicative that this individual was responsible and took care of himself. Later, four objects owned by the unknown citizen are mentioned: “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire” (21). The narrator reveals that these items were “necessary to the modern man” (20) for that time period. This is yet another example of Auden’s satirical tone as these items are in no way necessary for life, but to be a “modern man” one had to have all the latest technology. The entirety of the poem drips with satire. The narrator pretends that every accomplishment is important and valued, but the tone seems to mock the unknown citizen and his regular activities.
Never Standing in the Way
As the theme of the citizen blending in continues to develop, the speaker briefly mentions that the man held all the proper opinions and held the same views on war as everyone else. Furthermore, this person had five children, “Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation”(26). This is yet another example of the government putting the man into a designated and expected box. Not only did he have the right number of children, the unknown person never stood in the way of his children’s learning: “And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education” (27). This means that their education was left up to the control of the State. Again, this is another example of how the unknown man did nothing to upset anyone.
The poem then concludes in two lines that veer off from the tone of the rest of the poem. The speaker asks “Was he free? Was he happy?” (28). These two questions serve an ironic purpose for the answer to come as the man never had anything go wrong in his life, but then the speaker continues and answers that “The question is absurd” (28). These two questions are referred to in the singular, as ‘the question,’ as if being free and being happy were the same thing. The speaker concludes with the phrase “Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (29) which leaves the reader with an eerie feeling. The narrator defines happiness as the things that do not go wrong, rather than things that go right. In the state’s eyes, this unknown citizen is simply a number, not an individual with unique talents, opinions, beliefs, and so on. He lacks an identity.
All in all, Auden’s blatant portrayal of an individual in society coincides with current literature by highlighting the individuality problems that people face today. Auden uses many poetic devices to demonstrates that even though the unknown citizen goes by the book, does everything right, and does not cause any trouble, the man remains unknown because he does nothing to set himself apart from others. In his poem, Auden seems to send the message that there are countless “Unknown Citizens” who have lost their identities and are a part of a faceless crowd. Auden’s poem is a reminder of the potential dangers of conformity-individuals can lose their unique identity and become a non-person without a voice; an unknown.
- Auden, W. H. “The Unknown Citizen.” Literature The Human Experience: Reading and Writing. Shorter ninth edition, edited by Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz, Bedford and St. Martin’s, 2009, pp 407.
Faceless Bureaucracy in the Unknown Citizen
Wystan Hugh Auden was a writer from England and the United States. Auden’s poetry has been noted for its stylistic and technical achievement, devotion to politics, values, romance, and spirituality, and diversity in sound, type, and material. The Unknown Citizen it’s a poem Auden wrote at a defining time in his life, when he left England to live in the US, and when he gave up the idea that her poetry could change anything in the world. His move to America led to expanding his creative output. Auden was a prolific poet who wrote long and technically astute poems, but he also took the change to free verse, mixing modern and traditional elements.
The Main Idea
Satirical and upsetting is the poem. Auden wanted to emphasize the individual’s position and the increasingly faceless bureaucracy and voice that can emerge with any kind of government in any country. From the first five lines it is clear that the state is in total control and that this individual’s existence has been designed and organized to create a complete conformist, someone with a clean identity and serving the greater good. There is mention of the Department of Social Psychology, part of the state that probably studied his history when he died and found that his fellows were all healthy. Day after day he purchased a newspaper, that is, he read ads spread by the biased press and had no adverse reaction to that newspaper’s advertisements. For being a decent but unquestionable man, this individual is treated like a little child. The speaker describes the eugenicist and coldly states his five children are his generation’s ” right number ”.
The narrator in this poem, likely a faceless bureaucrat, with a generic set of lines to play out, establishes a voice of cold and computer ignorance. The flat, emotionless text takes control as the reader continues, and by half it is obvious that monotony is queen. There is no color, no personal reference points, no personality description, no life.
Phrases and Irony
Auden showed an intriguing and ambiguous attitude. He used phrases and phrases that define sadness and at the same time the conformity of being a voiceless, no personality citizen who just follows the script that was dictated. He uses beginnings of phrases like ‘and then he’ and that makes his poem colder and duller. The use of irony is quite explicit in Auden’s poem. The external forces on the current body economy are too strong and serious for Auden to be repelled without much opposition or resistance. Through his refurbishment of the current world, Auden expresses sadness as a feeling of desperation echoes.
Moreover, Auden’s poem is a warning of the dangers inherent in any system of government, in any organization, everywhere, at any moment, a man may lose his individuality and be a voiceless person who obeys the pre-established rule of the government.
Different Themes in the Unknown Citizen by Auden
The Events of That Time
“The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden was written in 1939 and reflects many of the events which went on during this time. The poem also gives insight of what happens now and gives the reader a chance to make a connection from what has been written to something relating to what arises in present day or in a person’s life. During the 1939 the great depression was ending, World War II was just beginning, the United States declared neutrality, Albert Einstein wrote to FDR, and to offset the war news two classical movies were released. The war is mentioned in the poem in the way of describing the man known to us as the unknown citizen, “…Except for the War till the day he retired/He worked in a factory and never got fired,” (Abcarian et al. 6-7). Meaning the man worked hard never stepping out of line but he also fought in the war when he was called to fight. Then with the war only starting Einstein wrote to FDR, “…In the course of the last four months it has been made probable … that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium- like elements would generated” (Einstein, 1939).
Auden’s’ personal life also is alluded to in the end of his poem, “… Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/ Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (Aubcarian et al. 28-29). Although “In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann…It was a marriage of convenience to enable her to gain British citizenship and escape Nazi Germany- Auden was himself homosexual” (BBC). When he came to America in 1939 he, “met Chester Kallman who became his companion for the rest of his life” (BBC). So, the ending of the poem could be referring to not many knowing of him keeping a secret but also referring to jhow many people never truly know what another is going through. The outside world knows only certain amounts even those who are closest only get glimpses unless they have gone through it themselves or with the one concerned. No one truly knows what others unless told are going through.
In conclusion, Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” can be looked at from many perspectives whether it be deconstruction, new historical, or a reader response. By analyzing the poem from different perspectives or giving some background information this allows the reader to better understand the poem or piece of literature. Auden’s poem is one of many examples of a poem which can be analyzed from multiple perspectives. It also fits well with the time period of which it was written.
- Abcarian, Richard, et al. Literature: the Human Experience. Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.
- Einstein, Albert. ‘Einstein’s Letter of 1939.’ Einstein’s Letter of 1939, 8/1/2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=21212411&site=ehost-live.
- “History – WH Auden.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/auden_wh.shtml.
- Rosenberg, Jennifer. ‘The Great Depression, World War II, and the 1930s.’ ThoughtCo, Aug. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/1930s-timeline-1779950.
The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden. Literary Analysis
“The Unknown Citizen”, a poem written by W.H. Auden, reflects a period of vast change in Americas history, making “The Unknown Citizen” an example of the governments view of the perfect modern man in an overrated, unrealistic society.
During the time period that this poem was written, in the late 1930s, The United States was going through tremendous social, political and economic change. Following the passing of Black Monday and at the onset of The Great Depression, many Americans held negative opinions of their government and the many positive aspects that once drew citizens to the United States were becoming increasingly negative. The Great Depression fundamentally changed the relationship between the government and its people. Citizens began to expect and accept a larger federal role in their lives and the economy. During this time period, Americans were issued cards with a personalized federal numbers, better known as Social Security cards, which in turn depersonalized the political system of the United States.
We the people, see our government as a coalition between our leaders and ourselves, leaders that we elect to represent and enforce our values. They merely see us a number. This issue emerges currently with regard to the election of the next president of the United States. The entire issue deals not with the citizens wants and needs, but with the “numbers”. We are no longer individuals, but merely a vast pool of insignificant numbers. Numbers that only become imperative when the disparity between them is diminutive. “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard (Auden).” This question is still being asked today, the only difference now is that there is no doubt whether or not the opinions of the masses are being heard. The question remaining is whether or not the government is actually listening to the people.
This poem also expresses that government makes it seem that everyone else is doing the “right thing”, so you must follow in their footsteps and if you do so your reward is a happy and fulfilled life with all the comforts of the modern man. The standards are constantly changing so that you will never reach the optimum point, therefore you must always strive to improve. This can be seen in the 2000 Presidential Race. We the people have followed the same uniform procedures in determining our presidents since the founding of our country, yet we are now being told these standards are “outdated” and “unreliable”, which in turns breaks down our faith and the faith of other countries in our political system. Auden expresses a similar opinion in his poem. He presents the idea of the good society, at best a possibility, yet never actually achievable, but one in which we the people must always work towards. As citizens, we know the obligations of our citizenship, however it often times is the officials we tend to elect that forget their obligations to us. Is this idea not clearly being seen currently in the attempt to elect our 43rd president?
This poem was written at a time when a citizen would rarely voice such an opinionated stance on a subject such as politics. Yet after reading between the lines of the written words of the poem, one can grasp a better understanding the thoughts and feelings of the author concerning the political issues of the era. This poem can shed light on things in a totally different perspective. It can help one to understand that the ways of the “Modern Man” is not always the best choice. People today move so fast, they never get a chance to slow down and realize that there are more important things in life than being picture-perfect, whatever happened to individuals accepting defeats in their relationships, education and employment? Whatever happened to individuals being humble and honest? Audens view of the government, depicted through this poem, uses the “Unknown Citizen” as an example of the perfect modern man in an overrated, unrealistic society, represented by citizens views in this poem.
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.