What Is the Mood of the Poem "The Unknown Citizen?"
W. H. Auden's poem, "The Unknown Citizen," begins with a parenthetical inscription to JS/07 M 378. Although it is unclear at first who the narrator or JS/07 M 378 is, the implication is that the poem has an impersonal feel to it, that neither the producer nor the receiver of the poem has an identity, or at least not one important enough to merit mentioning. This sets the tone or mood as one of ironic distancing and sarcasm.
As The Poetry Foundation website notes, it is often difficult to tell if Auden himself is the narrator of a poem, or if he has created a fictional narrator (See References 1). As the verse continues, it becomes clear that the narrator is a nameless bureaucrat who possesses a dry wit, rhyming the number "8" with the word "state." The poem is a memo to a fellow bureaucrat. Immediately it becomes apparent that the subject of this memo is an equally nameless individual, in this case, a person whose entire life has been under scrutiny by government and quasi-government departments.
The ironic tone is made clear with the detail that the unknown citizen, who is having a monument erected to him, has never done anything brilliant or even heroic. In fact, he has done nothing to differentiate himself from the average person. The narrator states that the Bureau of Statistics knows very little, except that there has never been an official complaint. Because of this and a clear conduct report, the narrator almost tongue-in-cheek adds that "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint." As the poem continues, the sarcasm builds. Much of it is aimed at the unknown citizen for having been so mediocre.
The bureaucratic narrator enumerates the various average accomplishments: The man in question always did what was expected of him, even in such important decisions as war. In fact, he never took a stand; rather he was a conformist, being a pacifist when the "greater community" wanted peace, and dutifully going to war when it did not. At best, he was found satisfactory by his employer, sarcastically named Fudge Motors, with his claim to fame being that he never was fired from a factory job. He even seems to have joined a union because it was the thing to do, and even then he did what he was told.
As the poem progresses, Auden makes it more apparent that the sarcasm is a double-edged sword, as some of it reflects back on the narrator. There is a hint of self-aware paranoia in the mentioning of the report on the union, which is included as a parenthetical thought. In the lines immediately following, the narrator also gives away that the unknown citizen had almost no privacy, that a team of social psychologists went as far as to interview his drinking buddies, or perhaps even spy on them.
Through various sources, the narrator makes clear that the government had ways of keeping tabs on every aspect of the man's life. It knew if he bought the newspaper, how he reacted to advertisements, if he had an insurance policy, and if he was ever in the hospital. When the narrator states that the unknown citizen "had everything necessary to the Modern Man, / A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire," this says more about him than it does about the citizen, that these mediocre goals are his goals as well.
By creating a narrator who is an object of derision, Auden imbues the poem with ironic detachment. As you read the poem, you begin to realize that the bureaucrat does not speak for the poet; his views on conformity versus individuality are simply too extreme to be representative. Auden also slyly allows the poem to degenerate into doggerel at times, thereby even making fun of the narrator's lack of poetic skill. Finally, the fact that the bureaucrat presents matter-of-factly a government that spies on its citizens and knows everything about them makes him into somewhat of a monster. He is so clueless as to the human condition and need for individuality that when he asks "Was he free? Was he happy?" he can only dismiss the questions as absurd.
Despite his giving lip service to the question of the man's happiness, none of the studies the narrator references was in any way concerned with any citizen's freedom or happiness. The final line is ironic: Since the bureaucrat is only interested in knowing about political and social views, as well as such pragmatic statistical information as how many offspring the citizen added to the population, there is no way that he would have heard about the man's frustrations or unhappiness. Had such monumental information been available to him, he would have ignored it as unimportant.
Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.