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The unknown citizen

The unknown citizen

Poetry is open to how a person reads it and, thus, can be confusing. The period that poems are written can also make it hard to read. A poem written two-hundred years ago when people spoke the language differently can make the interpretation difficult, thus leaving many different views of what the poem means. "The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden, was written in 1940 and that era can be seen in certain stanzas. The poem can be read easily and does support the title name. The poem's use of imagery, ironic tone, and theme presents the conflict of a man's true identity versus being a statistic of the government prevents the reader from understanding that this person is, unknown.

First, the imagery of "The Unknown Citizen" gives a good mental image of the lifestyle of this person. Auden best describes him as an average citizen when he writes, "And had everything necessary to the Modern Man" (Auden 20).The person lives what is considered a normal life. He does his duty as a citizen of the country he lives in. He has a home, children, and the basic items that most of the homes have during the time period in which the poem was written. He has never had any major illness and has not had any negative reports given by either a co-worker or anyone in the community. The imagery of the person in the poem does not let the reader understand who he is other than he lived an average life in an average community.

Second, the ironic tone lets the reader see that the Bureau of Statistics knows who the person is because the Bureau of Statics has all the detailed data on the people who live in the country. The data has the basic information and could identify the age or race of "The Unknown Citizen," whereas the author keeps the reader guessing. The author states "That he was popular with his mates and liked to drink" (Auden 14) is the closest we get to what his race or age is. Another ironic tone is the use of the word "saint" to describe how he lived his life in the "modern sense". In the "modern sense" leads the reader to believe that sainthood is following the status quo of the community instead of what a saint is considered in the old fashioned way. Where the old fashioned use of saint meant a person had done miracles. Doing his job in the required norm, taking care of his family, and being a patriot to his country is what is defined as a saint. Even with the ironic tone saint in a "modern sense," this still makes everyone who follows the status quo a saint and does not define the man in the poem from others in the community.

Third, the theme presents the conflict of a man's true identity versus being a government statistic. He could be a person in any house in a neighborhood. The government sees him as a number on a file in a drawer in some government building. The only thing that could identify him from others in his neighborhood is as Auden wrote, "He was married and added five children to the population, / Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation" (Auden 26-27): This still gives a vague reference to how old he might be. Another reference to his age could be the fact that in the poem Auden also wrote, "When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went" (Auden 25): This person most likely was in WWI which was fought from 1914-1918. WWII did not begin until 1939 and ended in 1945. Even with the vague information of how old he could be, the reader still does not know what hobbies he had, things he liked to do with his family, or what his children names, or ages were. His has no identity for the reader to understand.

In conclusion, during the 1930s and '40s life was simple and the standards of living had a set of norms that were followed. The person in "The Unknown Citizen" could have been just about anyone. To the government system he was a file number that was only known to the government. He had friends, maintained a job without causing problems, and was married with children. There are no defining aspects of his life that singled him out of his community. No one had anything bad to say about him or his work ethic. He is "The Unknown Citizen". Carol Lawson puts it best when said "'The Unknown Citizen,' he represents the life his society values and records in his 'metaphorical' Bureau of Statistics files, files that hold facts but tell only a partial story, leaving much else in silence." Auden's use of imagery, ironic tone, and theme presents the conflict of a man's true identity versus being a statistic of the government; this prevents the reader from understanding who this person is.

Auden, W.H. "The Unknown Citizen." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and writing. 6th Compact ed. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Longman, 2010. 437-438. Print

Lawson, Carol "The Unknown Citizen." Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 29 Jan. 2010.


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