The Unknown Citizen Summary
We learn that the words we are about to read are written on a statue or monument dedicated to "The Unknown Citizen." The poem consists of several different kinds of people and organizations weighing in on the character of our dear "Citizen."
First, the not-so-friendly-sounding "Bureau of Statistics" says that "no official complaint" was ever made against him. More than that, the guy was a veritable saint, whose good deeds included serving in the army and not getting fired. He belonged to a union and paid his dues, and he liked to have a drink from time to time.
His list of stirring accomplishments goes on: he bought a newspaper and had normal reactions to advertisements. He went to the hospital once – we don’t know what for – and bought a few expensive appliances. He would go with the flow and held the same opinions as everyone else regarding peace and war. He had five kids, and we’re sure they were just lovely. In fact, the only thing the government doesn’t know about the guy is whether he was "free" and "happy," two utterly insignificant, trivial little details. He couldn’t have been unhappy, though, because otherwise the government would have heard.
Section I (Epigraph)
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
?Is Erected by the State)
- The epigraph lets us in on a secret: we’re reading a dramatic poem. It’s all an act. The poem is pretending to be an official celebration of a dead person: the Unknown Citizen. The words are inscribed on a "marble monument" that was paid for by the State, or government.
- Which government? We don’t know. But referring to "the State" makes it sound very ominous, like George Orwell’s "Big Brother" from 1984.
- Marble isn't cheap, and most people can’t afford to use it as a building material.
- The government, however, has seemingly infinite financial resources to work with, because it takes money from everyone.
- As for "JS/07 M 378," we think Auden is just having fun by stringing a bunch of letters and numbers together in some incomprehensible way.
- It seems that "JS/07 M 378" is how the Unknown Citizen is identified, and the monument is dedicated "To" him. Referring to people in this way is, obviously, very cold and impersonal, but it can also be convenient, so bureaucrats do it all the time.
- To give a chilling but relevant bit of context, at the time this poem was written, the Nazis were already starting to identify Jewish prisoners with numbered tattoos, though this is not something that Auden would have known. But, in retrospect, this grisly parallel makes the "marble monument" seem that much more sinister.
- By the way, the monument is clearly a parody of the Tomb(s) of the Unknown Soldier, found in many different nations and dedicated to soldiers who died anonymously in battle.
- One of the most famous of such tombs lies underneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is a marble monument. You can read more about the Unknown Soldier in "What’s Up With the Title?"
Section II (Lines 1-5)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
- The poem begins by describing a person referred to as, simply, "He." We take this to be "The Unknown Citizen," which makes sense, because his name isn’t known. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to refer to him as "The UC." (UC is impersonal, but slightly less impersonal than JS/07 M 378".)
- The Bureau of Statistics has found that "no official complaint" has been made against our guy, the UC.
- Now, this is a strange way to start a poem of celebration. It’s a total backhanded compliment. It’s like if you asked someone what they thought of your new haircut, and they replied, "Well, it’s not hideous." Um, thanks…?
- But here’s a question: what on earth is the Bureau of Statistics, and why is it investigating the UC? There isn’t any Bureau of Statistics in any country that we know of, but most "bureaus," or government offices, deal with statistics every day.
- The Bureau of Statistics seems to be a parody of such "bureaucracies," which are large, complicated organizations that produce a lot of red tape and official paperwork.
- If the Bureau of Statistics has information about the UC, then it probably has information about everyone, because, in a certain sense, the UC represents everyone. He’s the average Joe.
- The fact that there was no "official" complaint against the UC doesn’t tell us much.
- Were there "unofficial" complaints? We don’t know, and from the poem’s perspective, it doesn’t seem to matter.
- Auden subtly pushes back on the anonymity of the UC in one interesting way, however. The first word of the second line is "One," which produces a minor joke if you stop reading there: The UC was found to be…One, as in he was found to be a single person: an individual. This is funny, because an individual is exactly what the idea of an "Unknown Citizen" is not.
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
- Get out your highlighters and reading glasses: we’re still poring through the paperwork of the lovable Bureau of Statistics.
- Now we have in front of us the "reports on his conduct." Let’s see: ah, yes, it appears the man was a saint. But not a saint like St. Francis or Mother Teresa: those are "old-fashioned" saints, who performed miracles and helped feed the hungry and clothe the poor.
- No, the UC is a "modern" saint, which means that he always served the "Greater Community."
- This community could include the poor and the hungry, but somehow we think that’s not what the speaker has in mind. And the words "Greater Community" are capitalized as if it were a proper name, though it’s not.
- As in the first two lines, these lines raise more questions than they answer. Who issued these "reports"? His friends? Lovers? Co-workers? Some guy in an office somewhere? We don’t have an answer.
Section III (Lines 6-11)
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
- The UC had one of the most boring jobs in the world: factory work. (We’re assuming he didn’t work in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.)
- Notice how the poem says very few truly nice things about the UC.
- Everything is phrased in the negative. Instead of, "he was great at his job and everybody loved him," we get, "he never got fired." It’s another backhanded compliment.
- We should probably assume that he didn’t work in the factory during the war because he was fighting as a soldier.
- Formally, these lines sound slightly different than what came before, maybe even a little "off." The formal structure of these two lines differs from the two preceding lines in two ways.
- First, the syntax (the order of the words) is weird because line 6 begins with the phrase "except for the war," which we would normally expect to come at the end of a sentence.
- Secondly, the poem unexpectedly shifts from an ABABA rhyme scheme to a rhyming couplet (retired/fired). This is such a simple and obvious rhyme that it makes the UC’s life sound even more awkward and boring.
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
- Finally, we get a positive accomplishment. The UC "satisfied his employers."
- Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound so impressive after all. "Satisfied" is a lot more neutral than, say, "thrilled" or "wowed."
- But right after this lukewarm praise, we get more negative praise – for not being something.
- The UC was not a "scab" and he didn’t have unusual opinions around the workplace. (A "scab," by the way, isn’t just the thing your mother told you not to pick off your scraped elbow. It’s also the word used to describe people who would replace workers who were on strike.)
- Unions aren’t nearly as powerful as they used to be, but back in the 1930s, they had the power to cripple major companies through labor strikes – assuming there was no one with whom to replace the workers.
- Although companies were happy to find "scabs," no one really respected the replacements because they were not team players and only looked out for themselves.
- The fact that the UC wasn’t a scab is really just another example of his normalcy.
- He was a good union member and "paid his dues." More importantly, the union itself was normal, or "sound."
- The biggest accusation made about unions during this time was that they were secretly socialist or even communist organizations. The speaker confirms that the UC’s union is neither of those things.
- In this poem, it seems that everyone is investigating everyone else. Behind all the reassuring clichés, there is a lot of suspicion and paranoia on the part of the State.
- Finally, these lines are the first to really suggest a particular nation or culture, and the giveaway is "Fudge Motors, Inc."
- For one thing, most car manufacturers were located in America in the 1930s. For another, the name of the company sounds a whole lot like Detroit-based "Ford Motors, Inc." the first and largest auto company in the world at the time.
- And, yes, "Fudge" is a very silly name, as we’re sure Auden was aware.
Section IV (Lines 12-15)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
- Now the poem shifts from his employment to his social life. But, don’t worry: there are still comically absurd bureaucrats to provide us with unnecessary information.
- Stop the presses! Headline: "Average Joe Enjoys Drinking With Pals."
- Even in his carousing with friends, though, the UC takes things in moderation. He likes "a drink," and the singular form implies that he doesn’t drink too much and isn’t an alcoholic.
- At the time when Auden wrote the poem, "Social Psychology" was still a relatively new field. Social psychologists study the behavior of humans in groups.
- This sounds good in concept, but in practice, a lot of the early work done in this field simply pointed out things that were so obvious they didn’t need to be pointed out.
- (Don’t worry, psychology majors, the field has gotten quite a bit more complicated since then.)
- It’s like when you read about some scientific study that says that unhappy people are more likely to drink a lot, and you wonder why on earth they needed a study to support such an obvious conclusion.
- Nonetheless, we have to think that the UC might have been flattered to be getting so much attention from all these intellectual types. That is, if he were still alive.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
- This is starting to sound like an infomercial you might see for some exercise machine on cable at 3 a.m. There are testimonials galore.
- Now "The Press," or news media, offers its take. Of course, they don’t really care about the UC as a person; they’re just glad he seems to have bought a paper every day.
- Or, rather, they are "convinced" that he did . We’d like to know what convinced them.
- Not only that, but he also had "normal" reactions to the advertisements in a paper. ("Hey! An inflatable kayak! I sure could use one of those…")
- In short, he’s a good American consumer.
Section V (Lines 16-19)
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
- We’re starting to suspect that the government must have an entire room full of paperwork on this guy.
- Now we are rifling through his health insurance policy, looking for any evidence that he wasn’t a totally straightedge, middle-of-the-road personality.
- He was "fully insured," which is sensible. This guy wasn’t exactly a risk-taker.
- Even though he had insurance, he only went to the hospital once, which means he wasn’t too much of a burden on the health system. He left the hospital "cured".
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
- What are "Producers Research" and "High-Grade Living"?
- They sound like organizations intended to help consumers know what stuff to buy.
- In fact, they sound suspiciously like the existing Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping, both of which were around when Auden wrote the poem.
- Both of these groups test out new products and provide ratings. Good Housekeeping, for example, is known for the famous "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
- So Producers Research and High-Grade Living have done a little research and learned that the UC used "installment plans" to buy expensive things.
- This is when you pay for something in small payments over a period of time. Although we don’t use the term "installment plans" very much anymore, the practice remains extremely common.
- Our love of buying things and paying for them over time is one of the reasons Americans have a larger debt per household than almost any other country.
- Since installment plan advertising didn’t really begin until the 1920s, Auden probably thought it was weird to buy something you couldn’t afford (read more).
- We don’t know about you, but we think these are the funniest lines in the poem. The phrase "fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan" is just hilarious, as if being conscious ("sensible") at all required you to know about the Plan.
Section VI (Lines 20-26)
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.
Section VII (Lines 27-29)
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?
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.