The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden. Poem Review

Categories: W. H. Auden

The warning present in W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” acts as a satirical effigy noting the ambiguity of individuality in modern society. The heroism of a conformist illustrated in Auden’s poem ironically illuminates the loss of identity every individual gives up by conforming to the government’s pressing laws and services that identify citizens more as a number rather than an individual.

Auden starts off his poem with a facetious allusion to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State” (1-3), emphasizing the identification of a nameless citizen.

The anonymous person loses his individual identity, reducing him to the status of descriptive statistics. The sarcastic allusion creates a paradox of the heroism of a law-abiding citizen: when does a hero ever go unknown if he/she fought for the vast majority? Auden writes, “For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. Except for the War till the day he retired” (8-9).

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The verbal irony behind serving the community without providing services at war shows the unidentified person, in fact, lacks purpose and does not even cause any problems for the head honchos in charge. The anonymous individual, merely just a statistic, blends in the ocean of other typical average Joes and does not make a significant difference to the daily flow of civil society.

Equally important as Auden’s pinpoint of the unknown citizen to a statistic, Auden mentions grand entities, such as The Press, Big Business companies, Unions, etc.

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The significance of these entities illuminates the variety of institutions the anonymous person had to please in a “respectable” fashion. For instance, “[he] satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.” (11), by maintaining in assembly with his counterparts and not stirring any problems. Auden sardonically mocks Ford, who created the contemporary assembly line, to juxtapose the flow of production to the flow of an ordinary person’s life. The assembly line demonstrates the division and regulation placed on the individual, which not only happens in the workforce, but in society in general. The singular job applied to each worker highlights the simple job asked of reliable citizens, to remain silent and certain of institutionalized anonymity.

Furthermore, Auden portrays the unknown individual as a successful experiment, “our Social Psychology workers found that he was popular with his mates and liked a drink” (15-16), further describing him as an aloof and distracted person. He enjoys the flair of popularity and what others think of him; as long as he does not upset anyone, he continues to please others, which pleases him. In addition to the distraction of pleasing his bosses and comrades, “[he] had everything necessary to the Modern Man, a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire” (23-24), which also acts as distractions from the fact that he does not enjoy the freedom he believes he experiences. His prized possessions satisfy his materialistic needs, which also satisfies the capital gain collected by the sovereign companies and associations that feed off of people such as the person Auden mentions in his poem.

In retrospect, a patriotic martyr would argue the opposite and answer that the unknown citizen lived a happy purpose-filled life with no burden on his freedom. Of course, the vast majority lives like the example in Auden’s poem, and they accept following the rules because they settle for conformity. If one remains ignorant of the endless possibilities his/her life could take, then he/she may seem happy. Ignorance brings bliss, does it not? Although one may insist the surface details of Auden’s poem depicts an average middle-classed civilian who enjoys a cookie-cutter custom of living, Auden shines light on the abstruse power of government and dominant corporations that manipulate the vast majority into following bureaucratic methods, “Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views” (12). The hierarchical chain of command of government promotes invasive observing of average people to marketing and advertising agencies of the like, psychologists, and eugenists. Marketing and advertising companies achieve success by appealing to the needs and wants of the mass population, or middle class, to further distinguish group identities, classifying people by their superfluous materialistic needs. Furthermore, Auden mentions eugenics, proving his tone hints at his dogmatic attitude to the government’s socialist-like motives.

The government and its corporations need ordinary people; they stand buttressed over anonymous citizens’ belief that a happy and purpose-filled life stems from staying safe in the lines of legislative, social, and materialistic norms. Auden notes, “Our researchers into Public Opinion are content that he held the proper opinions for the time of year” (25-26); he presents the shameful actuality of pre-destined outcomes in governmental elections, where the common regular develops the bias of the press and leads in the direction of the manipulation of advertisements. On another note, Auden acknowledges, “he was married and added five children to the population” (27); ironically numbering the children to reiterate the loss of identity granted to each person once born into a governed nation. Populating society with more humans makes for more unknown citizens, which pleases the government and corporations conducting the production of a deranged society. Finally, Auden characterizes the citizen as ignorant for failing to instill skepticism and critical thinking onto his children: “our teachers report that he never interfered with [the children’s] education” (30). The unidentified citizen would not have known to teach his children to challenge everything taught to them because he never learned to question things on his own or to form his own opinions, which deems him a perfectly benevolent civilian to society.

In conclusion, Auden ironically portrays the unknown citizen to a false heroic ego to highlight the average citizen’s loss of identity in society. His sardonic warning demonstrates a lesson to dubious citizens to anticipate the government’s ulterior motives. Auden suggests no single well-behaved person makes a legendary impression; instead he/she remains a vague number in the plethora of governed groups that comprise the entirety of the nation. Auden further prompts individuals to notice the precarious relationship between the government and large entities. The government recognizes the purchasing power of substantial corporations and the corporations know the benefits of supporting the government’s progress to a total state.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden. Poem Review. (2024, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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