Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Unknown Citizen


The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07/M/378, This Marble Monument Is Erected By The State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinion for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard.

-W. H. Auden

This could almost have been yesterday, except for the Instalment Plan, which lost out to credit cards, and five children, which would nowadays be a statistical anomaly, but Auden (1907-1973) wrote this in March of 1939. (Oh, and newspapers are going...)

This was the first Auden poem I ever knew, and for a long time while I remembered half the poem, I didn't know it was by him.


  1. reading this was rather like eating an orange with peanut butter... (don't ask, lol)

  2. I need to read more of Auden's poems!

    1. I think he's pretty good. But some of them are more serious than the ones I've been using lately... ;-)

  3. I am with Lark. I need to read more of him.

  4. September First 1939 is one of my favorite poems, and never fails to move me to tears when I read it aloud, as I have done innumerable times. Yet in most of Auden's poetry, I get the sense of a poet who had only a weak natural sense of euphony, for which the fussy formalism may have been an unconscious overcompensation. Here I suppose the lines are deliberately of variable length, but the effect is no less clunky and unlovely for that.

    1. I'm pretty fond of Auden over all and September 1 is definitely one of the best. Did you see the book about it by Ian Sansom a couple of years ago? I can't say that I particularly recommend it, but it did have some interesting stuff about the poem. (The rest was sort of bibliomemoir and less interesting though that was the reason it got mass release, I'm sure.)

      I'm sure the clunkiness of the lines in this are there to match the subject--they work for me--it's the voice of some insidious panoptic government authority after all. One would expect clunkiness, maybe even hope for it. And some of the rhymes are funny: Inc./drink

      Auden is often divided into early and late, with early being seen as more lyrical and late more academ-icky. I like them both, but I have certain fussy academic credentials myself. But I find his early stuff especially pretty lyrical, though resistant to simple euphony--well, he's probably close enough to Tennyson & Swinburne to still feel the need to resist that sort of thing.

      But then I like the later stuff too--I'm especially fond of Under Sirius with its extravagant vocabulary, sneaky rhymes, and sprung rhythms. I find it quite musical in its way.