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unknown citizen

The Unknown Citizen Theme


((Too long for 1 post.))

Post I

The Unknown Citizen, this multileveled and complex poem by W.H. Auden, is usually described by its surface level of meaning, that being that the "state" of some "future" time has reduced individuals to a collection of data and numbers. However, there are too many references to the America of Auden's present day life to fully justify a label of futuristic, and there are too many references to "standard of living" particulars to fully justify analyzing it as solely a diatribe against the "state." In addition, the "state" provides the poem with a surprise ending.

W. H. Auden was a York-born Englishman (1907) who became an American citizen in 1946 after having lived in America from 1939; he moved to Austria in 1958, which is where he lived until his death in 1973. Therefore, the differences between American English and British English sentence stress and word-syllable stress will be apparent and significant in his poetry and, in fact, do enter into comprehending the meaning of "The Unknown Citizen" because it relates to rhythm, and Auden's rhythm underscores his meaning. 

This poem is often described as free verse but actually it is anapest with liberal variations. The triple beat rhythm begins in the title and carries through to the last line. This is worth mentioning in regard to understanding the poem because the anapest triple beat underscores the ironies and the surprise (almost tragic surprise, really) of the poem. Auden is satirizing his present day post-World War II democracies that had developed "progressive" means, based on Social Darwinism, of taking care of--and tracking the care of--their citizens. "JS/07 M 378" isn't just a presage of what is to come, it is an ironic tribute to what was, from passport numbers to Social Security numbers.

The anapest rhythm lilts along in an ironic and a self-satisfied way, not in a sinister or a cold and heartless way. This is important all throughout but especially in the last few lines. The two major ironies are emphasized by the lilt (again, Auden undertakes liberal variations). The first of the major ironies is that all the huge efforts that go into finding out about JS/07 M 378--the Bureaus, the polls, the researchers, etc.--all end at last in the "absurd." The second major irony is that the tools designed purportedly for safety and liberty are in reality the tools of anonymity and restriction. Two of these tools, according to Auden's The Unknown Citizen, are the "Greater Community" and "teachers" in "education."

Post II below (I hope)

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