Both satire and irony are intellectual exercises with the purpose to attack or hurt and expose what is wrong or ridiculous in a matter or situation. Of course, in irony, the attack is made more subtly, rather indirectly, whereas, in satire, this is rather and straight. But in both cases, derision and delight go together. The author or poet makes fun of a person, a situation, or a state of affairs only to lay bare what is wrong, silly, or even corrupt in this.
W.H.Auden’s poem The Unknown Citizen presents apparently a simple portrait of an average person. His ‘unknown citizen’ is a mediocre personality whose mode of living and thinking is simple, standardized, and without any glow or glory. He makes a list of the traits and tendencies of such a man but has recourse to satirical and ironical observations on modern urban society and the standardized evaluation of life therein.
Auden’s poem actually sketches certain details about the lifestyle and the mode of thinking of an average man who lives according to a pattern and not on the basis of his own liking or inclination. The poet sharply implies that the happiness of the individual cannot be truly possible in a society where life is measured in terms of successes, gains, and good opinions from others. In modern society, a person has hardly any individuality to exert. He has become a cog in the machine of his society that is run by the newspapers, insurance companies, commercial contacts, and so on. His happiness is a relative matter, determined by the solid situations and general opinions around him.
Auden’s ironies are particularly patent in his observation of the lack of any definite personal view of an average citizen. Such a man lacks any firm opinion, rather changes his opinion from time to time, according to the change of the trend of the time. Auden’s expression is quite subtle and straight here :
“When there was peace, he was for peace ; when there war he went.”
His irony is specifically pointed in the concluding lines of the poem :
“Was he free? Was he happy ? The question is absurd.
Had anything wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
Indeed, Auden exposes here the prevalent absolute regimentation in a modern industrialized urban society where man is made to conform to an accepted pattern of living and thinking and any deviation from that is regarded as abnormaly and eccentricity. He sarcastically shows here how, in a commercialized society, individual happiness or freedom has no consideration, and is set aside as something totally absurd and immaterial.
Also read: Critical analysis of the poem Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H.Auden