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Analyzing W.h Auden’s Poem, the Unknown Citizen

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Analyzing W.h Auden’s Poem, the Unknown Citizen essay
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“The Unknown Citizen”

The title of this poem, “The Unknown Citizen”, is the only time this phrase is mentioned and is basically the key that the reader will not know the identity of the man. The speaker sounds as if he’s reading off a eulogy that brings out an ironic contrast of this poor man’s life. Although the speaker commends the citizen, his word choices reveal a patronizing tone. He talks about the citizen as if he was a good little boy and the speaker was the teacher. The reader is given countless information about the man, yet none of it is personal. The rhyme scheme in this poem makes the tone sound a bit humorous but for the most part it’s ironic and sarcastic. At the end, the speaker states that had anything been wrong with man, they would have certainly have heard. But when asked if the man was happy or free, the speaker claims the question is absurd.

The diction in this poem can be considered complex. The reader could analyze this poem over and over again, and would probably have a different opinion about the poem. It’s as is Auden wanted the reader to want to know more to be able to fill in the gaps. The syntax in this poem is unusual, in line 5-6 it says, “For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. Except for the War till the day he retired” stating that the man was a saint all throughout his life except for when he was called away to war. The vocabulary in this poem is also old-timey, for example the man was said to have “Everything necessary to a Modern Man, A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a Frigidaire”. This gives the readers the sense that Auden probably wrote this poem during World War II.

This poem doesn’t use a lot of similes and metaphors. In fact, at times it seems deliberately un-poetic. The only metaphor found was the comparison between the Unknown Citizen and a saint. The word “saint” is a religious term, so the Unknown Citizen can’t actually be one, except in the modern sense. In line 20, it is said that the man had everything necessary but mentions nothing about the basic necessities needed to survive like food, water, etc., making this a hyperbole.

Auden did not use hardly any sound devices in this poem, well at least not many that one could pick out. Which is a little odd given that most poets use this to their advantage to create a greater emotional response from the reader. He certainly had many opportunities to and may have made the poem a little more interesting had he done so. The only thing I was able to pick up on was the use of alliteration here and there. For example, in line 21 it says, “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire” where the consonant being repeated would be the vowel A.

Once read out loud, I was able to see that this poem did not follow a standard rhyme scheme. It alternates between a few different, simple rhyme schemes. The poem begins with an ABAB pattern, but then switches to a rhyming couple but after that he starts hopping around after a bit. Line 8-13 follow the pattern ABBCCA, the rhyme scheme beginning with the word “Inc.”. I wasn’t sure Auden was going to be able to create a rhyme but sure enough in line 13 he uses “drink”. The two words are so far away that I didn’t even know they rhymed until I read the poem out loud a few times. Finally, the rhythm of the poem roughly centers on the anapest, a metrical foot that has two unstressed beats followed by a stressed beat. For example in the beginning, “He was FOUND by the BUReau of STATistics . . .”

One major theme of this poem would be the pressing concept that we don’t know the identity of this man. The readers are not given a reason as to why the citizen is unknown but left to come up with a reason on their own. This poem follows the idea that the man followed the rules and lived his life the way our parents inform us to. The “right” way to live is to find a job, get married, and have a family, which is what everyone believes to be happiness. The man never distinguished in any way from his fellow citizens. Instead he was just like everyone else, doing the same routine day in and day out, and buying the same things necessary for a “Modern Man”. The speaker even goes as far as stating in lines 23-24 “That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year; When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.” Giving the readers the sense that the man was like a drone, and living life on auto-pilot.

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