Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012Type
......."The Unknown Citizen" is a satirical
poem that may be described as an epitaph (an inscription
on a tombstone that memorializes a dead person) or a
eulogy (a written or spoken composition praising a dead
person). The poem also resembles an elegy in that it
commemorates a dead person. However, unlike an elegy,
“The Unknown Citizen” does not have a mournful tone..
......."The Unknown Citizen” was first
published in the January 6, 1940, issue of The New
Yorker magazine. The poem appeared later in the
same year in a collection of Auden's works entitled Another
Time, published in New York by Random House..
.......The setting of the poem is a
cemetery with a marble monument over the Tomb of the
Unknown Citizen. No such tomb exists, but many countries
have tombs memorializing soldiers killed in combat whose
identity could not be established, often because of
Point of View
speaker of the poem is a government worker who
addresses readers and listeners in first-person-plural
point of view (using our and we) to
indicate that he is speaking on behalf of his fellow
.......The tone of the poem
is objective and businesslike.
.......A marble monument marks the burial
site of a citizen known only by his alphanumeric
identity: JS/07 M 378. In words etched on the monument,
the government praises the “Unknown Citizen” for
supporting and conforming to the will of the state. For
example, he always held government-approved opinions,
never once advocating a controversial idea. If the
government declared war, he did not question the
decision. Instead, he put on his uniform and followed
the crowd to the battlefield. If it declared peace, he
accepted that decision too and returned to society. In
short, he led a life of exemplary docility and
.......Moreover, he was consistent, holding
the same job for his entire life. Not one to arouse
discontent on the job, he never said or did anything to
anger company bosses or union representatives. When
reading the paper, he avoided perusing stories about
controversial or upsetting events and instead turned his
attention to advertisements.
At home, he supported the national
economy by having all the right things—a phonograph, a
radio, a car, and a refrigerator. To his credit, the
government eugenicist found, he had the right number of
children. By being a good sheep and following the
government shepherd, he without doubt led a happy,
Unknown Citizen" ridicules the title
character—and everyone like him—for accepting
all of the government's dictates and all of
society's standards. He is a conformist, being
too lazy, too afraid, or too complacent to be
different or to take a contrary stand on an
issue of importance. As the speaker notes,
researchers into Public Opinion are content .......Apparently,
the Unknown Citizen read the newspaper for the
advertisements, not for the news. (The news
might have provoked him to voice a controversial
view.) On the job, he was so wishy-washy
that he managed to please both his employer and
That he held the proper opinions for the time
When there was peace, he was for peace: when
there was war, he went.
Loss of Individuality
: Because the Unknown Citizen did
nothing to set himself apart from the crowd, he lost his
individuality—a fact that pleases the central
government. Government bureaucrats recognize him only as
JS/07 M 378.
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany
after the majority of the citizens accepted him
without question as a dictator. The poem, written
in the late 1930s after many Austrians also
accepted his rulership, seems to imply that
failure to oppose the will of a tyrant helps him
to achieve his goals.
Propaganda: The epitaph on the tomb is a
form of propaganda that promotes conformity.
contains end rhyme, but there is no definite pattern.
Following are the rhyming lines:
1, 3, 5: be,
agree, communityAll the end rhymes are masculine
except lines 25, 26, and 27. In masculine rhyme, only
the final syllable of one line rhymes with the final
syllable of another line (or other lines). For example,
lines 1, 3, and 5 contain masculine end rhyme because
only the final syllables (be, -gree, and -ty)
rhyme. The poem also contains feminine rhyme, in which
the last two syllables of one line rhyme with the last
two syllables of another line (or other lines).
Lines 25-27 contain feminine rhyme: -lation, -ration-,
2, 4: complaint,
6, 7: retired, fired
8, 13: Inc., drink
9, 10: views, dues
11, 12: sound, found
14, 15: day, way
16, 17: insured,
18, 21, 23: declare,
19, 20: Plan, Man
22, 24: content, went
25, 26, 27: population,
28, 29: absurd, heard
....... The language in the poem is simple
and straightforward, like government writing for the
masses. It is also impersonal, with no more feeling than
a grocery list. Note, for example, line 25: He was
married and added five children to the population.
The use of the word added suggests that the
Unknown Citizen and his family were statistics, not
people. Note also that the only names mentioned in the
poem are those of government agencies and businesses.
Study Questions and Essay
citizens of a democracy should abide by government
laws. For example, they should respect the rights of
others to freedom of speech and freedom of religion,
and they should pay their fair share of taxes.
However, under certain circumstances, citizens have
a right—perhaps even a moral duty—to oppose the will
of the government and its laws. Write an essay that
explains circumstances under which citizens ought to
oppose a government policy or law. To support your
thesis, use examples from the past and cite issues
in the present with the potential to arouse the
wrath of the people.
- Identify a
government policy or law with which you disagree.
Explain why you disagree with it.
- The words of the
poem are an epitaph inscribed on the monument over
the tomb of the Unknown Citizen. What would you like
your epitaph to say about you when you are lying at
a poem about a deceased person who, unlike
the Unknown Citizen, was not afraid to speak
out against government policies.