On “The Unknown Citizen”

The tomb of the unknown soldier. (Image from Wikipedia commons)

The poem, “The Unknown Citizen (To JS/07/M/378) This Marble Monument is Erected by the State”, (By Wysten Hugh Auden) is more than merely the thoughts of a reflective visitor at the grave of the Unknown Soldier.  It is a poetic comment on the state of namelessness the United States society creates for its citizens.  Wysten Hugh Auden uses sarcastic irony to comment on the binding attitude society has taken–the attitude of a society that refuses to see anything wrong with itself.

The very title of the poem is an unstated metaphor between the unknown soldier and citizens who conform to society.  Auden says they become unknown, grow synonymous with others, lack individuality, and actually lose the freedom to realize the very things they are missing.  The parentheses in the title seems to be a reiteration of the anonymity of this “citizen”.  It categorizes this citizen as merely one in a mass of other unknowns–nothing more than a number.  The final part of the title is as impersonal, stiff, and cold as one may imagine the marble monument itself to be.   The title statement that reads, “. . . This Marble Monument is Erected by the State”, is a call by the state for others to be just like the unknown citizen and join him in conformity to a seemingly perfect, but greatly faulted, norm.  Auden almost makes the reader laugh at the hyperbole of the perfection of the “unknown citizen” when he lists group after group who lay claim to the citizen as an example for their cause.  The poem is an analogy of how American attitudes of  freedom, in reality, are not so far flung from the controlling lead of Marxism with which Auden is personally familiar.  When Auden surprises the reader by writing that the man does not interfere with the education of his children, the reader begins to question how much freedom a man has who cannot be a driving influence in the education of his own children.

Auden uses an end rhyme scheme to keep the readers attention and draw them toward the irony of the final line.  The rhyme scheme never repeats as it moves through the 29-line poem.  The scheme is: ABABACCDEEFFDGGHHIJJIKLKMMMNN.  The scheme makes the reader aware of an underlying rhyme but keeps his attention on the words and not merely on the rhyme.  Auden uses words to draw the common reader into this persuasive poem and keeps the advanced reader active with subtle use of wording that requires simple pronunciation even when the reader wants to be technical.  For example: line 8 ends with “. . . Fudge Motors Inc.”  Rather than having the reader say “incorporated”, Auden intends for the reader to pronounce the final abbreviation, “ink”, as evidenced by the rhyme tucked several lines down in line 13: “. . . liked a drink.”  The meter of this poem has no consistency.  It begins as a trochaic foot but varies from the trochee to some dactylic feet and even on to pyrrhic.  The lines are all generally of the same length–between six and 14 words long.  They appear of similar length on the page.  Due to the uniformity of lines, this poem cannot be free verse form.  The lack of structure or pattern labels this poem as continuous form.

Throughout this poem Auden uses diction to emphasize the idea of the citizen being a part of the whole.  This gives even the reader a feeling of being a part of a “Greater Community” as Auden says (l. 5).  He uses words to show the progressivness of this community and references to unions, popularity, and the normal to show how the community is tightening in on everyone and forming society in a mold called “Public Opinion” (22).

The greatest strength of this poem lies in the authors use of irony.  The poem comes to an ironic end with a twist that makes the reader question society’s definition of freedom: “Was he free?  Was he happy?  The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (28-29).  To question a dead man and assume he is free or happy because he does not answer is the irony set by Auden.  The entire poem shows how society is bound and gagged by conformity to the “Greater Community”(5).  When it finally comes to asking for truth about the freedoms of this society, the people being questioned are unable to reply.  At the same time, the inquirer has the cotton of conformity and wax of wasteful persuasions stopping his ears.  He is so unable to hear the moaning of a society gone awry that he replies to his own question with the reasoning of a deaf executioner.  The purpose of this poem is to persuade, through irony, that the advancing society of the U.S. is not as free as citizens would like to think.  The citizen who is supposedly being honored for being himself is overshadowed by the wings of the circling vultures of society who strip him of any personhood or independence as they each lay claim to him.  The irony lies in the American idea of independence and freedom that is chipped away piece by piece.  By the end of the poem, the irony makes the reader’s head  turn back to the monument which has been chipped away.  Nothing is left to symbolize any individuality.  That place has become level and no different from the entire countryside.  The irony shows how the independent spirit has been bound and molded into society’s ideal–the modern Everyman.



Work Cited

Auden, Wysten Hugh. “The Unknown Citizen.” Encounters: Connecting, Creating, Composing.

Eds. William Epperson, et al., Dubuque