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The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen

by W. H. Auden

Section II (Lines 1-5) Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-2

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,

  • The poem begins by describing a person referred to as, simply, "He." We take this to be "The Unknown Citizen," which makes sense, because his name isn’t known. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to refer to him as "The UC." (UC is impersonal, but slightly less impersonal than JS/07 M 378".)
  • The Bureau of Statistics has found that "no official complaint" has been made against our guy, the UC.
  • Now, this is a strange way to start a poem of celebration. It’s a total backhanded compliment. It’s like if you asked someone what they thought of your new haircut, and they replied, "Well, it’s not hideous." Um, thanks…?
  • But here’s a question: what on earth is the Bureau of Statistics, and why is it investigating the UC? There isn’t any Bureau of Statistics in any country that we know of, but most "bureaus," or government offices, deal with statistics every day.
  • The Bureau of Statistics seems to be a parody of such "bureaucracies," which are large, complicated organizations that produce a lot of red tape and official paperwork.
  • If the Bureau of Statistics has information about the UC, then it probably has information about everyone, because, in a certain sense, the UC represents everyone. He’s the average Joe.
  • The fact that there was no "official" complaint against the UC doesn’t tell us much.
  • Were there "unofficial" complaints? We don’t know, and from the poem’s perspective, it doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Auden subtly pushes back on the anonymity of the UC in one interesting way, however. The first word of the second line is "One," which produces a minor joke if you stop reading there: The UC was found to be…One, as in he was found to be a single person: an individual. This is funny, because an individual is exactly what the idea of an "Unknown Citizen" is not.

Lines 3-5

And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

  • Get out your highlighters and reading glasses: we’re still poring through the paperwork of the lovable Bureau of Statistics.
  • Now we have in front of us the "reports on his conduct." Let’s see: ah, yes, it appears the man was a saint. But not a saint like St. Francis or Mother Teresa: those are "old-fashioned" saints, who performed miracles and helped feed the hungry and clothe the poor.
  • No, the UC is a "modern" saint, which means that he always served the "Greater Community."
  • This community could include the poor and the hungry, but somehow we think that’s not what the speaker has in mind. And the words "Greater Community" are capitalized as if it were a proper name, though it’s not.
  • As in the first two lines, these lines raise more questions than they answer. Who issued these "reports"? His friends? Lovers? Co-workers? Some guy in an office somewhere? We don’t have an answer.

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