During the 1920s and 30s, many American writers left the states to become expatriates overseas, particularly in Europe. Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are three famous examples. W.H. Auden, however, did the opposite. He was an Englishman who moved back to "the colonies" (the U.S.) in 1939, at the height of his creative powers. Auden wrote "The Unknown Citizen" while living in New York, and the poem gives evidence of his culture shock when suddenly confronted with American-style chaos and consumerism.
As a poet, Auden is a chameleon capable of writing in many different forms and styles. He is considered a "modernist" writer, but his work is unlike that of any other poet of the past century. At a time when many poets were experimenting with obscure forms and new ways of using language, much of Auden’s poetry had more popular appeal. He was a master, for example, of the rhyming couplet (AA, BB, etc.), the simplest rhyme scheme in English. "The Unknown Citizen" is so accessible it almost sounds like an elaborate joke.
The poem is written in the voice of a fictional government bureaucrat – someone who sits at a desk and shuffles papers all day – whose decisions affect the lives of people he has never met. You could consider it a poetic version of George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in that it concerns a Big Brother-like state that knows everything about its citizens except the things that really matter. But the poem doesn’t sound as pessimistic or tortured as either of these novels It uses good old-fashioned humor to protest the numbing effects of modern life. It’s not the most "intellectual" of Auden’s works, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful to read. "The Unknown Citizen" is proof that great poetry doesn’t have to take itself seriously all the time.
"The Unknown Citizen" is a great poem to read in an election year. Fortunately, it’s always an election year in the U.S., so it’s always a good time to read the poem.
Why? Because so many American politicians that run for office, no matter how interesting and extraordinary they might be, pretend to be the equivalent of the "The Unknown Citizen": a sensible, good worker and consumer, with no major vices or strange opinions, and (usually) happily-married with bright, smiling kids. This is funny, because we know that no one’s life could possibly be so picture-perfect. Even if life were this perfect, we would probably find that person to be dull and even creepy.
The person Auden calls "The Unknown Citizen" is a composite of information from every poll and survey that politicians use to figure out what the people called "swing voters" are really like. Union member? Check. Served in the military? Check. Reads the morning paper? Check. Buys things on credit? Check. His life is measured in statistics. Nowadays, the speaker wouldn’t even have to visit "Bureau of Statistics" or "Producers Research" to learn about the habits of "The Unknown Citizen"; he could just hop on the Internet.
With his completely inoffensive background, we think the Unknown Citizen would do well running for office himself. But Auden’s point goes even deeper than that. He is arguing that the myth of a perfect citizen is created by those in power. The fictional monument and epitaph (inscription) that celebrate "The Unknown Citizen" are actually the means by which this power is exercised.
The manipulative "State" in Auden's poem celebrates "The Unknown Citizen" as the ideal citizen: he never thinks about whether a war is just or not, he creates a lot of government revenue because he spends money on expensive, taxable appliances, and, most importantly, he never rocks the boat by voicing opinions that are different from those around him. He is the kind of person who says, "My country, right or wrong." This reminds us of a quote from the writer G.K. Chesterton: "’My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case." In Auden's opinion, being a conformist and going with the flow all the time isn’t just mind-numbingly boring; it’s also dangerous and unpatriotic.