Study Guide

The Unknown Citizen Speaker

By W. H. Auden


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."