Critically examine Auden’s portrait of an unknown citizen in his poem “An Unknown Citizen”

An unknown citizen, as the very adjective ‘unknown’ fairly suggests, is one who is not known at all, a rather quite unimportant being. He is, in fact, an average, common-place person (man or woman) of whom there is no commendation or fascination. He or she is too ordinary to draw attention or admiration.

The unknown citizen of W.H.Auden’s The Unknown Citizen is the portrait of a man (not a woman) of the like calibre. The poet draws this portrait with certain specific traits that bind the man to a standard pattern of the life-style and the mode of thinking. There is no official complaint or report against this man’s behaviour or dealing with others. He belongs to the society in which he lives thoroughly sincerely and ever upholds its conventions and values. Naturally, his society finds in him nothing offensive or reprehensible to be criticised or despised.

Again, as a worker, whether in a factory or elsewhere, he is loyal and regular and does not falter to attend to his duty, even if rigorous, till his retirement. Moreover, he never fails to pay his dues to his union and as such is admitted by this as no idiotic or eccentric fellow. He is also at his ease and popular with his fellow workers and shares drink with them. He is also not negligent to his duty as a loyal citizen to participate in war, when necessary. He is a perfect citizen in his adherence to other normal tasks, expected from a good citizen. Like any other modern man, he purchases and reads a newspaper daily. He is found to react to the advertisements, given in such a newspaper, and remains guided by the same in making and taking his decisions about purchases. He has the usual recourse to the instalment scheme in this respect. He possesses all the accessories supposed to be necessary for amenites and conveniences in modern living—a gramaphone, a radio, a car and a refrigerator. He also follows the standardised principle in his judgement and opinions. In fact, he is guided by the prevalent trend of thought and does in no way deviate from this. During the time of peace, when war is discarded, he stands for peace and advocates its causes. But when war starts and is much exalted in the general opinion, he has no hesitation to go to the front like many others. In fact, he has lost independent thinking and become a cog in the rolling machine of the dictating society.

Auden’s portrait also includes the typical family life of an average citizen. This man is definitely married, not a despairing bachelor, like Prufrock in Eliot’s The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock and has rightly, in the view of the research workers on the population, added five children. He allows his children to be educated in the conventional manner without the least interference from him.

This is the portrait of the unknown citizen, as drawn by Auden. There may be questions as to how far he is free or happy. But the question does not appear relevant as there is no report or complaint about anything relating to him.

Auden’s portrait shows the type of an average urban citizen who is pressed into conformism by all sorts of social forces, prevalent and dominant all through. He does not fail to indicate how such a citizen is bereft of any independent association or thinking. He is only to conform to the prescribed standard and view-points. Auden’s representation often ironically slings. He subjects to his light, but pointed ironies, the very situation as well as the patternized living in a modern urban community. His observations and comments on the modern interpretations of a ‘saint’, the functions of bureaucracy and the press and the basis of the favourable opinion from labour union are all marked with penetrative, though pleasing, ironical hits.

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 time. Auden’s expression is quite subtle and straight here :

When there was peace, he was for peace; when there war he

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 abnormally 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; Bring out the element of irony and satire in “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H.Auden

Also read; A short note on Critical analysis of the poem Musee des Beaux arts by W.H.Auden