The Unknown Citizen
By W. H. Auden (1907-1973)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Setting
Point of View
Tone
Summary
Themes
Rhyme
Language
Questions, Writing Topics
Auden's Biography
Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

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"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.

 
Publication

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"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..


Setting

.......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 disfiguring wounds.   

Point of View

.......The 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 government employees.

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is objective and businesslike.

Summary

.......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 submissiveness.
.......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, contented life.

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Main Theme: Conformity

......."The 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,
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
.......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 his union.

Other Themes

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.
Submissiveness: 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.

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Rhyme

.......The poem contains end rhyme, but there is no definite pattern. Following are the rhyming lines:
1, 3, 5: be, agree, community
2, 4: complaint, saint
6, 7: retired, fired
8, 13: Inc., drink
9, 10: views, dues
11, 12: sound, found
14, 15: day, way
16, 17: insured, cured
18, 21, 23: declare, frigidaire, year
19, 20: Plan, Man
22, 24: content, went
25, 26, 27: population, generation, education
28, 29: absurd, heard
All 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-, and -cation.

Language

....... 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.

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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Generally, 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 eternal rest?
  • Write a poem about a deceased person who, unlike the Unknown Citizen, was not afraid to speak out against government policies.

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