Study Guide

The Unknown Citizen Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By W. H. Auden

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

The Unknown Citizen

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.

  • Title: The title is the only place where the term "Unknown Citizen" is used, so it is a key to the entire poem. It lets us know that the poem is an allegory, or an extended comparison to figures outside the poem. "The Unknown Citizen" is meant to recall the idea of "The Unknown Soldier," or a soldier whose remains could not be identified after a battle.
  • Line 4: The word "saint" is a religious term, so the Unknown Citizen can’t actually be one, except in the modern sense, which means that we’re dealing with a metaphor. It’s also a drastic hyperbole – let’s face it, the guy wasn’t Gandhi.
  • Line 20: Everything necessary? Really? What about food, water, and shelter? This line is classic hyperbole, or exaggeration.

Bureaucracies and Investigation

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.

  • Epigraph: The epigraph furthers the allegory set up by the title, comparing the non-existent Unknown Citizen to the idea of the Unknown Soldier. The "marble monument" to the Unknown Citizen makes us think of the various Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in places like Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
  • Line 1: The "Bureau of Statistics" is a symbol representing the way bureaucracies treat people as mere numbers and figures.
  • Line 5: The "Greater Community" is a vague cliché used by bureaucracies to foster a sense of teamwork. It’s not clear what the "community" refers to – his family, job, nation? Not all communities are compatible with one another, so it doesn’t make sense to speak of just one Greater Community.
  • Line 26: We think the "Eugenist" is a personification of the field of eugenics as a whole. No government would ever have a single person called a Eugenist in charge of population control.

Parodies and Irony

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.

  • Line 2: It’s ironic that a poem of praise would begin on such a dull and tepid point as the lack of "official complaints."
  • Line 8: Fudge Motors, Inc. sounds to us like a parody of Ford Motors, Inc, the biggest auto company in the world at the time. But more delicious.
  • Line 18: "Producers Research and High-Grade Living" are parodies of real consumer organizations like Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping.
  • Line 19: To say that he was "fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan" is a hilarious understatement. He must have been aware at a higher level than his "senses."
  • Line 20: The phrase "everything necessary to the Modern Man" is a cliché used by advertisers to sell stuff. Today it sounds so old-fashioned that we can easily recognize it as such.