The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden
Section VI (Lines 20-26) Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
- Ever heard the Rolling Stones song, "You Can’t Always Get What You Want." The song says, "You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need."
- The point is that we always think we need more than we really do. This is precisely the idea behind these lines.
- Obviously, a person doesn’t need a phonograph (the 1930s equivalent of an MP3 player), radio, car, and frigidaire (refrigerator) in order to survive.
- But if you want to be a hip, "Modern Man," these things are absolutely "necessary." We get the impression that the UC’s greatest accomplishment, in the opinion of the speaker, was buying things.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
- The "researchers into Public Opinion" are like the people nowadays who call your house during dinnertime to ask you who you’re voting for and whether your jeans are stone-washed or boot-cut.
- The UC didn’t have any weird or "improper" opinions. He was a conformist, which means that he believed what the people around him seemed to believe. He was like a weather vane, going whichever way the wind blew.
- Indeed, the UC’s beliefs were partly determined by the seasons or "time of year."
- Line 24 is also pretty funny. We imagine a pause for comic suspense after word "war." "When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war…(pause)…he went."
- The line leads us to expect that it will end "he was for war," but we actually get something much more hesitant. Because, really, who could be "for war"?
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
- You’d think that a person’s marriage and children would be one of their biggest accomplishments.
- But the State doesn’t really care about such intimate concerns, so the bureaucratic speaker only mentions them in passing.
- From the perspective of the State, it’s good that the UC had so many children because a growing population usually helps a nation’s economy and also ensures that there are enough soldiers just in case (cough, cough) a HUGE WORLD WAR comes along (hint: this poem was written in 1939).
- "Eugenics" is a term from history that you may not have heard before. It refers to a social movement that believed that the human species could be improved by engineering changes in its gene pool.
- Eugenics relied on the relatively new fields of genetics and the theory of evolution.
- This new scientific field was all the rage in the beginning of the twentieth century, until a guy named Adolph Hitler starting adopting its ideas.
- Most people now agree that eugenics was a disastrous concept, although most of its followers were not as evil as Hitler.
- The eugenist in this poem thinks he can direct the size of the population by telling people how many kids they should have.