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The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen


by W. H. Auden

Section VII (Lines 27-29) Summary

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

Lines 27

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

  • This line is somewhat creepy: the speaker implies that the UC was a good parent because he didn’t "interfere" with the education of his kids.
  • In other words, their education was left up to the control of the State. (Notice that the speaker calls them "our" teachers and not "their" teachers.)
  • But shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Lines 28-29

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

  • The poem ends on a final, rhyming couplet that takes a big detour from the conventional topics that have occupied the speaker so far.
  • Now he asks two questions – "Was he free? Was he happy?" – that really do seem interesting.
  • These questions are not interesting to the speaker, though, who calls it "absurd."
  • It’s interesting that these two questions are referred to in the singular, as "the question," as if being free and being happy were the same thing.
  • In the final line, the speaker explains why the question is absurd: if things had been going badly for the UC, the State ("we") would have known about it, seeing as they know everything.
  • The speaker’s confidence in this line – "we certainly should have" – is downright chilling. But, of course, the big joke here is that the speaker defines happiness in the negative, as things not going wrong, instead of as things going right.
  • From the perspective of the State, it is much more important that people are not desperately unhappy – so they don’t rock the boat and stop buying things – than it is that they experience personal fulfillment.

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