This poem could be the first number of a really wild Andrew Lloyd Weber musical that is set in the windowless office building of a government bureaucracy. All you’d have to do is add some simple music and actors, and change the title from "The Unknown Citizen" to "The Unknown Citizen!" It probably wouldn’t hurt to throw in some exclamation marks elsewhere in the poem, too: "A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire!"
If you’ve ever seen a musical theater performance like "Ragtime" or "Phantom of the Opera," then you know that sometimes the actors belt out their songs, and sometimes they just seem to be talking-in-song. "The Unknown Citizen" could fit with the second approach. The verses sound catchy and have that "’Twas the Night Before Christmas" meter, but the rhythm isn’t consistent enough to merit the belting-out approach. That is, phrases like "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned" don’t exactly lend themselves to melody (line 4). Instead you’ve got to imagine the actors shouting the lines with lots of enthusiasm and charisma, while instruments play a catchy beat in the background. Oh, and a tuba. There’s got to be a tuba.
Places, people! In center stage you have the speaker, our faceless bureaucrat. But, just to make things more interesting, some of his faceless co-workers are crowded around him, presenting their own reports about the UC. This could work because the poem breaks down nicely into different chunks.
Lines 6-11, for example, provide information about his job and Union membership. Some of these lines have a singable, Dr. Seuss-like sound (and don’t forget to add those exclamation marks): "Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views! / For his Union reports that he paid his dues!" You could have a bunch of different characters representing the different kinds of bureaucrats who get to have their say, from the "Social Psychology works" to the "researchers into Public Opinion." Their words sound a little phony, but they could try to cover up the awkwardness of lines like "his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way" by having a huge smile plastered across their faces. So huge, in fact, that you could see it from the back row.
Overall, the poem is trying to give the impression of a happy celebration, even though the subject matter is boring and, quite honestly, a little frightening. Just like in musical theater, when characters who are supposed to be sad and depressed always seem so darned cheerful because they’re singing.
So, there you have it. The first number of "The Unknown Citizen." the Broadway smash-spectacular coming soon to a theater near you! Now, if you were to write the script to the rest of the musical, how would it go?
"The Unknown Citizen" is a parody of the "The Unknown Soldier," a term used to recognize people whose bodies are found after a battle but cannot be identified. The U.S. Army uses metal dog tags to identify soldiers who are killed in action, but these tags can be lost or melted, and sometimes it’s just impossible to locate or identify a person’s remains. In this case, many countries use the concept of the "Unknown Soldier" to acknowledge the sacrifice of soldiers who die anonymously. France placed a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris; England has one in Westminster Abbey; and the United States has one in Arlington National Cemetery. Indeed, the epigraph implies that the poem is attached to a fictional "marble monument" dedicated to the UC.
The concept of "The Unknown Citizen" suggests that the lives of many normal people are so conventional and uneventful that they might as well be unknown or anonymous. They’re just an empty suit or a face in the crowd. Of course, it’s only a metaphor. Normal people don’t often die anonymously – though, sadly, it sometimes happens. With his tongue in his cheek, Auden is trying to celebrate or recognize the "sacrifice" of the Average Joe. However, this sacrifice is nothing like a soldier’s, as Auden is well aware. Rather, the Unknown Citizen is praised for being a good consumer, for buying the same things as everyone else, and for not having opinions that might upset anyone. The message to the reader is clear: you don’t want to end up like the Unknown Citizen.
It’s hard to know what kind of setting to imagine for this poem. You’ve got the setting of the monument on which the poem is inscribed, and then you’ve got the setting of The Big Man himself, our Unknown Citizen.
What kind of monument is it? We think a bronze statue of this famous Magritte painting would be a good fit. We don’t think the monument would let us know very much about the UC at all. Maybe it would just be a slab of clean white marble with no decoration, or a big marble replica of a dollar bill (because he was so good at buying things), or maybe it would be an obelisk like the Washington Monument. We’re sure you can come up with something interesting.
Anyway, we’re going to plop our monument down right in the middle of the Washington Mall, maybe next to the Lincoln Memorial. The Unknown Citizen deserves a central place in our nation’s capital, considering all his huge accomplishments like having five kids! It will be right down the street from the Bureau of Statistics, a huge, drab marble building. And, of course, it will have that strange dedication "To JS/07 M 378" on it.
As for the Unknown Citizen, he lives a very neat, organized society. It looks like a squeaky-clean 1950s TV show – except in the 1930s. The new Ford has just been waxed, the Jell-O is cooling in the frigidaire, and the kids are on the living room floor, listening to the latest episode of Little Orphan Annie on the radio:
"Who's that little chatter box?
The one with pretty auburn locks?
Whom do you see?
It's Little Orphan Annie."
If you’ve ever seen the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, you know what we mean. But there’s a slightly seedy underside to this quaint little vision, and it’s that the government seems to know everything. There are tons of reports and paperwork to fill out, and researchers into Public Opinion are walking the streets, taking the mood of the public on every subject under the sun. If you say something odd or don’t pay your Union dues, people will look at you cock-eyed and maybe even stop talking to you. And, trust us, no one is ever going to ask if you’re happy.
We’re so familiar with the uptight bureaucrat as a source of parody that it’s easy to forget that we didn’t always have bureaucrats. It wasn’t until governments got really huge and corporations became the center of the economy that the large, complex organizations we call "bureaucracies" really took off.
The speaker of "The Unknown Citizen" is a bureaucrat who works for the State, or government. Or at least he’s a big fan of bureaucracies. How do we know? Because he cites them…a lot. The first line, even, calls attention to the Bureau of Statistics. Bureaucrats love to gather data and statistics, because they help managers run an organization more efficiently. However, it’s a problem when living, breathing people become mere statistics: John Doe watches 1,356 hours of television a day, runs 22 miles a week, reads 12.7 books, etc. To the speaker, the Unknown Citizen is just a collection of statistics, which is why he remains "unknown."
The speaker doesn’t just speak for himself, though; he represents the entire apparatus of the State. Like a king during the Middle Ages, he uses the "Royal We" to make clear that his assessment of the Unknown Citizen’s character is not just one person’s opinion: it’s the official position of the State. So he says, "our Social Psychology works" and "our Eugenist." Clearly he has consulted with a lot of people before writing this poem. It’s a real team effort, but also very creepy.
Seeing as the concept of "The Unknown Citizen" is a parody of the idea of "The Unknown Soldier," we see a parallel here to the process of awarding a really high military award, like the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is given out for extraordinary heroism in battle. Before such an award can be given out, the army conducts detailed research into the recipient’s background and their deeds of heroism. Although the Unknown Citizen doesn’t win any awards, he does have a marble monument in his honor, which is a big deal.
We might imagine the speaker as some guy in a grey suit sitting in a windowless office somewhere, reading reports turned in by other people and organizations. He doesn’t know the UC, and probably doesn’t care, but it’s his job to write up some flattering piece of verse, and by golly, he doesn’t want to let the State down. He stinks at delivering compliments, and he gets a bit testy at the suggestion that maybe the Unknown Citizen wasn’t free and happy. It’s like when you call up a company to tell them their product is broken and the Customer Service person gets annoyed and says, "That’s not possible – our products never break – you must be using it wrong!"
The last thing to say about the speaker is that he’s not actually speaking. That is, in the fictional world of the poem, these lines are inscribed on the monument to the Unknown Citizen. It had to have been written by someone, but this "someone" is also "unknown." Let’s call him "The Unknown Bureaucrat."
Ah, Auden. This poem is so simple, yet so intelligent. It takes a great writer to pull that off. The poem has hardly any metaphors and only a handful of historical vocab words. It sounds like something that a clueless bureaucrat could have written…if he wanted to write a wicked satire of himself.
It’s hard to pull off rhymes in 20th century poetry. First, because it sounds old-fashioned, like you’re trying too hard to write "Poetry." Second, because there aren’t many "masters" to serve as models. W.H. Auden is a notable exception to the trend. He gets away with rhymes in part because we’re not sure he’s doing it with a straight face. But he might be. You just don’t know, especially in a dramatic poem like "The Unknown Citizen," where the speaker is a fictional person. Did Auden use rhymes in part to make fun of the speaker? Maybe, but they sound so natural and unforced that we don’t necessarily have to explain the decision as an ironic one. We’ll call it "sort-of-ironic" and leave you to figure out what the heck that means.
An "elegy" is a poem about a dead person. These types of poems can be sad and mopey or grand and celebratory. "The Unknown Citizen" is of the grand and celebratory variety, but it’s also a satire, which means that it is making fun of the person it pretends to celebrate. There’s not much that’s grand about the Unknown Citizen. We know that he’s dead because the speaker refers to him in the past tense, and also because the monument for "The Unknown Citizen" reminds us of "The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," which was created to honor soldiers who died in battle but whose remains were never identified.
The speaker of the poem thinks he is paying a lot of nice comments, but most of his compliments amount to saying that the UC never caused anyone any problems. He sounds like the guy who agrees with everything and whom everyone calls "a nice person." This is called "damning with faint praise," because the praise is so weak and half-hearted that we know it’s just masking his utter insignificance. And, just so you know, Auden didn’t write satiric elegies exclusively; he also wrote two of the best heartfelt elegies of the 20th century: "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" and "In Memory of WB Yeats."
At a time when many poets were throwing themselves fully into unrhymed free verse, Auden was happily continuing the tradition of writing in rhyme. His rhymes don’t sound old-fashioned, either, although sometimes they seem ironic. When people complain that his poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore, you can point them back to Auden’s work.
However, he was far from a conventional poet, and "The Unknown Citizen" doesn’t follow a standard rhyme scheme. Instead, it alternates between a few different, simple rhyme schemes. The simplicity of Auden’s rhymes is striking, as if he had nothing to prove. Which he didn’t, considering that he was also a whiz with more complicated forms of rhyme.
The poem begins with an ABAB pattern, but then switches to a rhyming couple (AA, BB, etc.), after which he starts hopping around a lot. Some of the rhymes are sandwiched between other rhymes. Check out lines 8-13, which follow the pattern ABBCCA. You think he’s not going to rhyme anything with "Inc.", but then, five lines later, he comes at you with "drink." These two words are so far away that you might not even realize he was rhyming, but we bet your inner ear did.
Finally, the rhythm of the poem roughly centers on the anapest, a metrical foot that has two unstressed beats followed by a stressed beat. In the future, whenever you hear the tricky-sounding term anapest, think of the first two lines of "’Twas the Night Before Christmas," which has eight perfect anapests in a row: "’Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas and ALL through the HOUSE, / not a CREAture was STIRing not EVen a MOUSE." Auden doesn’t ever use that many anapests in a row, but they are pretty common in the poem, such as at the beginning, "He was FOUND by the BUReau . . ."
Now, if this meter sounds corny to you, then you’re on to something. Remember that this is a dramatic poem, and the fictional speaker is a government bureaucrat, so we would expect it to sound a bit corny, like something you might read on a greeting card…or a monument.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
This isn’t a poem that uses a lot of similes and metaphors. In fact, at times it seems deliberately un-poetic. The only metaphor we could find was the comparison between the Unknown Citizen and a saint. Then again, the entire poem is an elaborate comparison between the Unknown Citizen, whose accomplishments are ridiculously overstated, and the Unknown Soldier, which was created to honor heroic sacrifices that were never witnessed or confirmed.
The society depicted in the poem isn’t a real, historical place: it’s more like an ironic prophecy of the future using present-day parallels (or at least present-day from the perspective of 1939). The Unknown Citizen has been investigated to an absurd degree by all kinds of bureaucracies, from his employer, Fudge Motors, to Social Psychology workers, to Public Opinion researchers. There’s a paper trail a mile long on this guy, but none of it tells us anything useful about who he is.
The whole idea of the Unknown Citizen is a parody of the serious military concept of the Unknown Soldier, which was created in order to recognize the sacrifice of soldiers who died anonymously. The poem is dripping with irony, as the speaker lists off accomplishments that aren’t accomplishments at all. At many points, the poem directly parodies existing American companies or organizations.
The poem doesn’t talk about the sex life of the Unknown Citizen, but he must have had sex at some point, because his wife gave birth to five babies. Nonetheless, we are going to take a stab in the dark and say that his sexual habits were probably conventional, like everything else about him.