Sally Fitzgibbons Foundation

Beginning the Academic Essay

This is a very cutting and ironic-toned ending to the poem, which so effectively evokes the idea of the sort of direction many feared society was headed in Auden’s day (just look at Orwell and Huxley’s distopian novels). Auden wrote this piece soon after he moved to New York from England (in ’39). “The Unknown Citizen” appeared in the collection, Another Time, in 1940. The poem is intensely ironic and reflects Auden’s earlier work in which social, political and economic concerns dominated his texts. It reveals a satirical portrait of a unknown citizen, a citizen who represents the average man and his lack of personal identity within modern society. Dehumanizing institutions as well as complacency on the part of the citizenry are to blame for the lack of individuality. The poem appears to protest against a world in which systems interested in scientific data fail to capture the human quality of life, and mass organizations and commercial exploitation attempt to obliterate originality within humankind. Within such a system, questions that demand a subjective response, for instance, Was he happy?, become irrelevant. Happiness, here, is naturally assumed, for, as a citizen, the individual has achieved complete and utter “normalcy,” and in this society, being “average” is equated with being happy. The greatest irony of the poem is that in many ways the audience is the unknown citizen, for whether we realize it or not, our lives are largely shaped and dictated by the great social, political, and economic forces that seek to establish conformity to the attitudes and beliefs that they produce. One of Auden’s most famous lines, from the poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, states: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” This sentiment rejects romantic tenets and the notion that poetry can change events; however, it does hint at Auden’s belief that poetry can influence how we see and understand the world. Around us, and by extension, ourselves. Such reflection appears to be at the center of “The Unknown Citizen”

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