The Unknown Citizen, by W.H. Auden

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The Unknown Citizen

Written in 1939, “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden is a satiric epitaph for the individual man in a modern bureaucracy. The poem is addressed to “Js/07/m/378”, a social security like number, and an allusion to the national monuments for the unknown soldiers who died in battle. Similar to Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984, the poem reflects upon the diminishing role of individuality in the modern state. Given the context Auden wrote in, with the rise of fascism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia, individuality appeared to be compromised in the interest of the state. Auden, already a prescient poet at the time, recognized and humorously criticized the descent of modern man. Through an analysis of the use of satire, point of view, rhetorical questions, and appeal to pathos, it becomes clear that the epitaph is not only for the unknown man, but instead for the concept of individuality in modern society.

Primarily, Auden criticizes the bureaucratic system through the use of satire. The use of satire is important because it changes the interpretation of the poem’s style and structure. The poem works as a critique of bureaucratic society by contrasting the reader’s expectations of an elegy with the lyrical quality of the poem and its rhyme structure. The style of the poem mirrors that of a traditional funeral epitaph, in that it celebrates the life of the unknown citizen. Both the title “The Unknown Citizen” and the subtext “To Js/07/m/378…This Marble Monument is Erected by the State” indicate that the poem is an elegy (1-2). The use of anapest throughout the poem creates a sing-song musical quality to what is supposed to be a serious literary document. Thus, while the poem commemorat...

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... bureaucracy dehumanizes individuals through the repeated negative association of its branches with capitalization. In response the reader becomes emotionally attached to the individual not described by the bureaucracy, the actual unknown citizen.

While the world has not progressed into the authoritarian state imagined by Huxley or Orwell, Auden’s poem may in fact be a prophetic glimpse into the future of humankind. Through an analysis of The Unknown Citizen’s satirical nature, point of view, rhetorical questions, and appeal to pathos it becomes clear that the success of a bureaucracy comes at the expense of the individual. In doing so, Auden enables the reader to become conscious of the importance of individuality. Thus, The Unknown Citizen becomes a symbol for the excess of bureaucracy, the death of individuality, and the importance of freedom and happiness.

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