Auden wrote the poem shortly after moving from England to the United States. It was first published in 1939 in The New Yorker, and first appeared in book form in Auden's collection Another Time, 1940.
"The Unknown Citizen" is the epitaph of a man, identified only by a combination of letters and numbers somewhat like an American Social Security number ("JS/07/M/378"), who is described entirely in external terms: from the point of view of government organizations such as the fictional "Bureau of Statistics." The speaker of the poem concludes that the man had lived an entirely average, therefore exemplary, life. The poem is a satire of standardization at the expense of individualism. The poem is implicitly the work of a government agency at some point in the future, when modern bureaucratizing trends have reached the point where citizens are known by arbitrary numbers and letters, not personal names.
By describing the "average citizen" through the eyes of various government organizations, the poem criticizes standardization and the modern state's relationship with its citizens. The last lines of the poem dismiss the questions of whether he was "free" or "happy", implicitly because the statistical methods used by the state to describe his life have no means of understanding such questions.
The epigraph to "Unknown Citizen" is a parody of the symbolic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating unidentified soldiers; tombs of unknown soldiers were first created following the first World War.
- "Explain the main theme of the poem 'The Unknown Citizen' by W.H. Auden" at eNotes
- "The Unknown Citizen" at GradeSaver
- "The Unknown Citizen" at Shmoop.
- "Irony in W. H. Auden's Poem “The Unknown Citizen”" at HubPages.
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