In W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen”, he uses irony to make the reader think about what the unnamed man thought about his life. “The Unknown Citizen”, was written during World War II in the 1940’s. During this time a man’s possessions and status defined who he was. The unnamed man established a name for himself within his community and appears to be living the American Dream. He is praised throughout the poem as if he has no flaws. Auden uses irony, allusion, and irregular rhyme in his free verse poem “The Unknown Citizen” to analyse the fulfilment of the America Dream.
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The irony Auden uses in “The Unknown Citizen” is indirectly suggested. Throughout the poem the unnamed man is described as a “saint”. This word choice reveals to the reader that he is a man that could not do any harm. The unnamed man was only admired by what he had accomplished in life according to the worlds standards. He was a hard worker, a great citizen, and a father of four: “Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation” (26-27). The unnamed citizen lives a life that satisfies those around him:
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint
And all the reported on his conduct agree
That, in the modern senses of the old-fashioned word, he was a saint. (1-4)
This quote proves that his life is viewed by the Bureau of Statistics as being a man who did what was right for himself and the community. He did not worry about the life around him; he was a man who did what he had to do to get by. However, the poem never stated his feelings about his life. His feelings about his life remained a mystery throughout the poem. Although he was viewed as living the American Dream: “And had everything necessary to the Modern Man” (20), it may not have been the life he wanted. During this era, the twentieth century, the state had an expectation of a modeled citizen. They believed that it was necessary to have particular necessities to be considered a well rounded modern man: “This determination is made possible by modern technology that can amass this information and by statisticians who can analyse this information. The result of this accumulation of facts is an incomplete picture. These statistics do not get to the essence of the man” (Nanda 2). Once the reader grasps the facts about the unknown man, Auden opposes questions that make the reader rethink the meaning of the poem: “Was he free? / Was he happy?” (29). These questions are answered in a statistical way: “The question was absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (29-30). This verse in my opinion states that if the unnamed man was not happy that he would have lived his life differently and may have gotten into trouble. They would have known if his betrayed perfect life would have been not so perfect. The poem never proved if the unnamed man enjoyed the stereotypical perfect life the state designed for him.
Auden used allusion to give the reader insight on how dedicated the unnamed man was to his job and what he believed in:
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. (7-10)
This verse proved that he was a man of dignity and followed the rules. Auden implies that the unnamed man was a hard worker and it showed in his work ethic. He was admired in the Union and was not considered a “scab”. He was a worker who would not work under conditions unauthorized by the Union. Auden wanted the reader to understand that the unnamed man could be any man during the time in which the poem was written. This poem was not written about one specific man: “The poem then details all the supposed characteristics that the state finds important to identify and to remember him” (Nanda 2). He was respected by his co-workers and was a man whom was very positive. The compliments he received from others proved that he was working toward success.
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Auden uses irregular rhyme in this free verse poem to prove the inconsistent feelings the unnamed man has with society: “Perhaps the Unknown Citizen is not in exact harmony with the state, as the statistics suggest” (Nanda 2). The repetition of two or more vowel sounds in successive words created a rhyme. However, the lines in the poem were organized without meter. While reading the poem the reader thinks that the unnamed man is living his life to the fullest with everything he desires, but the last two questions make the reader doubtful. At the end of the poem Auden rhymes only a few lines at a time to through off the reader.
Although the unnamed mans thoughts were not revealed, I believe that he was happy at how he lived his life. He was a modelled citizen who not only did what society thought was best, he did what he needed to do to create a good life for his family. The way he lived his life was exactly how he wanted it to be. He worked hard to live up to the American Dream. He had modern materialistic that symbolized success: “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire” (21). He took advantage of the necessities available and was admired for it because he did what everyone else wanted to do at that time, live the America Dream.
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