By definition, the Unknown Citizen has no identity. With the related concept of the Unknown Soldier, it is the soldier’s physical remains, or dead body, that cannot be identified. But for the Unknown Citizen, it is more that his life was so conventional that he did not distinguish himself in any way from his fellow citizens. There must be thousands, even millions, of Unknown Citizens out there, about whom little can be said except that they didn’t get in anyone’s way. On the other hand, you might think that there is nothing wrong with being "unknown," and that the poet is being elitist.
The Unknown Citizen isn’t a particular person – he represents the average of all people in a society.
Monuments and public celebrations are always political. Even your town’s Fourth of July parade is a staged political event. Now, "political" doesn’t have to have a negative connotation (who doesn’t love free candy and bead necklaces on the Fourth of July?), but in this poem, the State is a creepy, manipulative bureaucracy that is most concerned with preventing oddballs from getting in the way with the status quo. So they have created this expensive marble monument to the blandest person in the country, the one least likely to mess things up for those in power. The inscription on the monument – the poem – tells us almost nothing about the man to whom it is dedicated. It tries to convince the imaginary reader to be more like the Unknown Citizen.
Despite the poem’s sinister tone, there is no reason to think the Unknown Citizen is being manipulated by anyone.
Some people say, "My country, right or wrong." Other people think argument and dissent are the signs of a true patriot. Auden’s poem falls more toward the latter end of the spectrum. The poem tells us that "in everything he did he served the Greater Community," but we’re not sure what this means. Who decides what the interests of the Greater Community are? Does this group exclude anyone? Is individual identity at odds with it? These are a few of the disturbing questions that the poem raises in relation to patriotism. And, of course, things are complicated by the fact that the poem seems to be set in America but was written by an Englishman.
The Unknown Citizen argues that patriotism is always a bad thing, and that a person’s primary loyalties should be toward mankind.
The Unknown Citizen is called a modern-day "saint" by the State, but it isn’t clear just what he has done that is so worthy of praise. His most potentially heroic deed is serving in the army during a war, but does serving in a war automatically make you a hero, even if you were only doing what everyone else did? On the whole, the Unknown Citizen belonged to the faceless masses, from his consumer habits to his love of having "a drink" with his mates. Attacking the conformity of middle-class America has always been a favorite sport of intellectuals, and you can find tons of more contemporary examples, like the Oscar-winning movie American Beauty. You may choose to disagree with Auden’s perspective, or you could say, "Right on!" This is the kind of poem that battles conformity by provoking strong opinions from its readers.
Even as a soldier, the Unknown Citizen remained a passive bystander to his own life.