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Satire is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skillful writer. Many satirical works manage to become remembered and even earn cult status. Some great examples include George Orwell’s Animal Farm or the works of Kurt Vonnegut overall. Another hidden gem of the world of satire is W.H. Auden and, in particular, his work The Unknown Citizen. Impressed by the bureaucracy present in the United States as well as its trivial status there, Auden created a satirical masterpiece that is still relevant today.
The Author and the Context
To understand the degree of the author’s impression over the subject of the poem, it is noteworthy to review the biography of the author. Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, and a year later the family moved to Birmingham. Since childhood, the future poet was interested in geology, mineralogy, natural sciences and was going to become a physician or engineer. On the advice of a friend in 1922, however, the poet began to write poetry and later, entering Oxford University, decided, in his words, to become a "great poet." During his life, he traveled a lot and lived in different countries. In 1939 the poet moved to the United States and decided to stay there, eventually earning citizenship. It was there when he wrote most of his successful satirical works, including The Unknown Citizen (Mendelson 350). Having enough experience, Auden was a poet that had quite a lot to say. Thus, the manner, in which the poem is written is quite easily explained.
After he arrived in the United States, Auden was not very surprised or amazed by the American culture or architecture initially. However, the bureaucracy, visa requirements, and essentially, the manner to record a lot has probably impressed the poet deeply. Shortly after his arrival, Auden began writing dark ballads about the individual failure, with satirical undertones. One of those ballads was The Unknown Citizen, which satirized the collective individual failure, or more particularly, incompleteness of the modern society (Mendelson 369). Witnessing the perfectionism of bureaucracy that, on the other hand, could only work with particular points, Auden created a wonderful piece of satire that did not lose its relevance even after more than 80 years.
The Poem and Analysis
The Unknown Citizen is written in a form of an epitaph to an unidentified man, in a fashion similar to the monuments to unknown soldiers. The epigraph of the poem is a dedication to the eponymous unknown citizen, with his name being recorded in a form of ID, “[t]o JS/07 M 378” (Auden i). Even before the poem starts, the satire of the society of the time obsessed with numbers and figures becomes evident. Rather than trying to commemorate a person, the poem commemorates an ID, a cell, simply a set of numbers and letters.
The satire of the bureaucracy of the first half of the 20th century goes even deeper as the poem progresses. The first thing that appears odd in the poem is that the unknown citizen was found by the Bureau of Statistics. Not by his relatives or friends, but by this governmental institution in particular (Auden 1). This could be an allusion that in Auden’s contemporary age of science and bureaucracy, the governments closely followed their citizens, to the point that they were the first to find out about their deaths and examine the body.
Another particular line of the poem that plainly demonstrates Auden’s irony and satire goes shortly after the beginning. The Bureau of Statistics that has found the eponymous character of the poem summarizes that “in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint” (Auden 4). This is rather ironic as the poem goes further, describing how average was the life of the unknown citizen. Essentially, the citizen “paid his dues” to the society in every way possible, he “bought a paper every day,” his reactions to the contents of those papers, namely advertising, were “normal in every way,” the citizen “was fully insured,” as well as “was married and added five children to the population” (Auden 10-25). The main idea of Auden’s satire here is that in order to be recognized positively by a society of the time, it was enough to simply exist and be average in every way possible rather than thrive for any particular achievement.
Finally, Auden even satirizes the indifference of contemporary society even regarding people’s feelings and emotions. The poem ends with the lines that question whether the citizen has been happy or free in his life. The following lines respond that the question is absurd as in case anything was wrong, the government would have known (Auden 28-29). The satire here is evident on two levels. First, the government closely follows its citizen, the idea established at the very beginning of the poem. Second, the government would not bother to investigate the feelings of the citizens and would only wait until they complain.
In The Unknown Citizen, Auden’s satire of his contemporary society largely evident in the United States in particular at the time is short but impeccable. With the rise of science, the society of the time became obsessed with numbers and figures, to the point it would recognize people as the strings of code, the gears in the great mechanism, merely tools. All of these issues are still evident today, making Auden’s poetry relevant and noteworthy in modern times as well.
Auden, Wystan Hugh. "The Unknown Citizen". Academy Of American Poets, 1940, https://poets.org/poem/unknown-citizen.
Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography. Princeton University Press, 2017.
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