Many countries paid tribute to their war dead, particularly from World War 1, by erecting monuments to an unknown soldier, an unidentifiable body recovered from the battlefield who would symbolize the sacrifices and tragedies of all ordinary soldiers who lost their lives in these great conflicts. This concept is echoed in the title of WH Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen”, but here it is not heroism or sacrifice which is celebrated, but the banal ordinariness of most people’s everyday lives. Other poets also touched on this theme, TS Eliot for example in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, but this poem is a particularly nice example, wryly mocking the language and tone of official tributes to deserving and meritorious citizens or soldiers. The poem even underlines that it is to be inscribed on a marble monument, erected by the state. I would like to see that…
The Unknown Citizen
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
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)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
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.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
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.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
In addition to being a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the sheer banality of ordinary existence, it is also perhaps a vision of a surveillance state, a 1984-style Orwellian society where actions, opinions and statements are monitored and evaluated by those in authority. All of the statements in the poem about the Unknown Citizen are purportedly taken from official reports, surveys and enquiries. And all of these show the evidence that this citizen lived entirely in the mainstream of majority opinion and activity. If this were not so, there would be grounds for suspicion, it is implied. And, of course, questions of freedom or happiness are absurd in this totalitarian worldview. Conformity is the only value which matters.
Are we there yet? In many countries, for sure, and perhaps everywhere…
The Poetry Dude