• The plight of faceless men who are deprived of freedom and dignity in a totalitarian state.
The learner will be able to:
1. analyse the poem and point out the new trends in modern poetry.
2. explain the theme, tone and message of the poem.
3. discusss the poetic devices employed in the poem.
4. analyse the poem as a satirical elegy, an allegory and a satire on modern society.
5. point out the relevance of the poem.
6. comment on the poem as a typical modern poem.
The poem structured in the form of a satiric elegy, begins with an ironic epigraph detailing a monument erected by the state for a common man who served the greater community with no superhuman qualities. The poem is a mixture of wit and irony stating the snobbish attitude of western societies. It also serves as a warning which shows that a modern man is always under the surveillance of state and his personal freedom is curtailed to a very great extent.
The Unknown Citizen is a masterpiece written by W.H Auden in 1939. The poem is written in the background of rising fascism and totalitarianism. It is about an ‘ideal citizen’ who was reduced to a mere number JS/07/M/378 by the state. The details of the citizen were gathered from different agencies.
The poem is a perfect satire on our society. The helpless, dull and mechanical aspects of life are highlighted in the poem. The poem deals with every day problems of common men. There is an undercurrent of humour and pathos throughout the poem. In short, the poem is a revolt against all systems which deny human dignity and individuality.
Understanding the Text
1. The poem is written in the form of a memorial for an ‘ideal’ citizen on the occasion of the unveiling of his marble statue erected by the state. But this citizen is reduced to a mere number on his identity card – JS/07/ M/378. He is faceless and anonymous who is known not by his name but by his number. This implies the official attitude of the State which denies the individuality of its citizen – an individual is reduced to a numerical value. State wants its citizens to uphold values like loyalty to the system, obedience to the government and conformity to its policies. The more a citizen fulfills these requirements, the greater is his chance of being honoured by the state.
2. The speaker of the poem seems to be the official’s voice of the totalitarian state. All relevant facts and average accomplishments of the unknown citizen are reported here in an objective, dispassionate tone full of bureaucratic clichés. The passive voice with which the poem begins (‘He was found by…’) suits this tone. The speaker codifies the information regarding the unknown citizen gathered from different agencies and departments. The speaker makes use of the plural ‘we’ and its possessive ‘our’ throughout the poem. (e.g. line 11, 12, 22, 31)
3. The accomplishments of the unknown citizen, as reported by the speaker, span over different realms of life. The Bureau of statistics presents him as a ‘saint’ against whom no official complaint was registered even once. For his employer, he was a regular worker who never faced any disciplinary action. Among the fellow union members he was extremely popular who enjoyed drinks with them. However, all these so-called ‘accomplishments’ are presented with extreme ironic undertones pointing to the dull and mechanical aspect of his life. In fact, the unknown citizen had been living in perpetual slavery to a regimented system.
4. The speaker dismisses the question whether the unknown citizen was free and happy as merely absurd by citing the reports submitted by various agencies of the government. (line 30-31) Though the official records claim that he was happy and content, the poem offers little scope for the readers to accept this claim. In fact, throughout his life, the unknown citizen has remained a slave to the system. He has to follow blindly the official policies. Even in deciding on the number of children he should have, he followed the advice of the state Eugenist. His opinions are framed and his tastes are defined by others. Throughout the poem Auden satirizes this tendency.
5. Though written in 1939 articulating the angst of the 1930 generation, The Unknown Citizen very well offers a warning to our contemporary society. The unknown citizens of the totalitarian regime are kept under constant surveillance by the authority. This is how the speaker accurately records the facts and figures of the man. The government machinery may utilize all possible technologies to limit individual freedom and to discourage divergent thinking of the individuals. In this sense, the poem has an unmistakable prophetic tone.
6. Like all great works of arts, ‘The Unknown Citizen’ cannot be simplified into an unequivocal message. However, while analyzing the poem from the socio-political perspective, one can realize that the poem aims at unraveling the dangers of totalitarianism. The reluctance of the citizens to promote divergent thinking and their tendency to indulge in utter passive mode like Fascism. The poem, thus, is an indirect exhortation to revolt against all systems which deny human dignity and individuality.
7. The Unknown Citizen does not have a regular rhyme scheme. Though the number of stressed syllable in each line is uniform (4 stressed syllables) the number of unstressed syllables varies from line to line. So the line – length is irregular. However, unlike his predecessors of Great Modernism – T S Eliot and Ezra pound – Auden does not follow free verse strictly. Different patterns of rhyme appear in the poem. For example, while the first four lines have the rhyme scheme of ‘ab ab’ the middle section has ‘abba’ pattern. Similarly, in certain other sections there are rhyming couplets as well.
8. Elegy is usually understood as ‘a formal and sustained lament in verse for the death of a particular person, usually ending in a consolation’ [Glossary of literary Terms]. It is absurd to consider The Unknown Citizen as an elegy in the strict sense of the term. However it is possible for us to appreciate the poem as a lament on the plight of the inter-war generation who were the victims of totalitarianism. Satire is a literarystyle which criticizes somebody or something by using humour as itsmajor weapon. There is an under current of humour and pathos throughout the poem. In this context, it is right to consider the poem as a satirical elegy.
9. Allegory is ‘a figurative narrative or description conveying a veiled moral meaning’ [Oxford Companion to English Literature]. It is a narrative strategy employed in all genres of literature. The well-known English examples include Spenser’s Fairie Queene, Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travells etc. Auden’s The Unknown Citizen cannot be considered as a typical allegory in this line. It is true that the unknown citizen in the poem stands for the millions of helpless men living all over the world who are denied dignity and freedom. Similarly, true to the spirit and style of allegorical writing, ‘the moral meaning’ (the silence of the totalitarian regime) is skillfully ‘veiled’ (concealed) between the lines.
Writing about the Text
1. The Unknown Citizen, one of the master-pieces by W.H. Auden was written in 1939 in the background of rising Fascism and similar totalitarian regimented power structures. However, like all sublime literary works, the poem is not for its time but for all ages. Even in the twenty first century the poem does not lose its relevance. The poem is written in the form of a memorial for an ‘ideal’ citizen on the occasion of the unveiling of his marble statue erected by the state. But this citizen is reduced to a mere number on his identity card -JS/07/M/378. The speaker reports the details of the citizen gathered from different agencies and departments. This proves that the citizen was kept under constant surveillance by the authority. Such a threat prevails even today in this digital era. By using the advanced technologies the authorities may try to confine individual freedom and discourage divergent thinking. The poem thus offers a warning to our contemporary society.
2. Satire is a literary art of ridiculing a subject. It is usually practiced as a corrective to human vice and folly. The Unknown citizen is a perfect satire making the readers aware of the dangers of totalitarian power structures. The citizens in such systems are reduced to a sum total of statistical facts and figures. The citizen in the poem is a ‘saint’ for the authority. He always held proper opinions which were the opinions of the government. He has availed of the benefits of installment scheme to ensure a ‘comfortable’ life. He has never interfered with the education of his children. Even in deciding on the number of children he should have, he followed the advice of the state Eugenist. However all these details evoke nothing but the citizen’s helplessness? The dull and mechanical aspects of his life are highlighted. Thus
throughout the poem the sharp edge of satire makes a vehement attack on the modern bureaucratic ridden society in which an individual is reduced to a numerical value.
3. In literary histories, the term ‘modern’ frequently denotes the literatureproduced during the period 1919- 1939. The poetry of W.H. Auden along with Louis Macneice and Stephen Spender offers a distinctive pattern within modern writing. They won admiration with their social commitment, epigrammatic crispness of tone, conversational manner and skillful control of phrase and metre.
4. The Unknown Citizen adheres to some of the notable features of modern writing. Unlike the Romantic glorification of Nature and Victorian concern with faith and reason, the poem deals with everyday problems of the common man. The central theme of the poem is the plight of the faceless man who is deprived of freedom and dignity by the authorities. The fusion of colloquial style and clichés of bureaucratic speech enhance the modernity of the poem. Each line of the poem has four stressed syllables, while the number of unstressed syllables varies. This technical device is another notablecfeature of modern writing.
1. Prepare a review of the poem.
2. What picture of modern man is presented through the poem.
3. Do you think the man was happy? why?
4. How does Auden present the lack of freedom in the modern society.