Irony in W. H. Auden's Poem “The Unknown Citizen”
Irony in W. H. Auden's Poem “The Unknown Citizen”
A Brief Digression About Meeting the Poet.
I did not shake hands with Mr. Auden himself personally when I went to hear his lecture on Modern Poetry held at Seoul National University in South Korea. But I did ask him a question so that my question, along with his response, would be recorded and kept in the archives of Seoul National University as I was then a butting [sic] poet, full of ambition. It was in the mid 70’s and I was a wet-behind-ears undergraduate English major, dreaming to become a writer, attending an unknown private college in Cheong Ju, South Korea, which now has become the University of Cheong Ju, two of the largest universities in Choong Buk Province, about two hours south from Seoul. It took me nearly three hours—one way—to attend the lecture: a two-hour express bus ride through the new national highway and then another hour ride on the notoriously difficult to identify Seoul City bus with numbers for its myriad unfathomable destinations.
When Mr. Auden finally appeared behind the podium, he struck me as a visionary: his long gray hair made him really look like a noble poet. To my untrained eye, the well-known poet looked like a Homeric seer, a poet-prophet, looking somewhat like Robert Frost in his old age—probably because I have never traveled outside the country then and as a result, all the white people looked pretty much the same. In fact, many Caucasian friends in Korea also told me how we Asians looked the same during their first encounter although we both learn to differentiate the unique facial features as we live longer in other cultures. He talked about how he grew up reciting T. S. Eliot’s poems. But I do not recall the details of his lecture as it happened a long time ago; furthermore, I did not think the audience—mostly Korean undergraduate students from Seoul National University—understood his finer points due to the fact that not all of them were good English speakers. When he finished his talk, a shameless undergraduate student asked him, during the Q & A, why he wrote poetry. I remember this incident quite clearly as it stands out in my memory. This brassy question visibly angered Mr. Auden and he responded how unfair, if not impudent, the question was, because the question, he explained, was analogous as to why do we eat? In short, he affirmed with me later that if you are a born writer, you cannot help it, for being one is almost a pathological condition from which you cannot escape—you just have to write to breathe.
Irony in the Unknown Citizen
Nowadays when I ask my students about the meaning of the term “irony,” smarty pants students quip me that the word “irony” is an adjectival form of the noun “iron!” Clever is the wit, of course; however, even in that joke, one can also see how “irony” could mean something “chewy” as it means a twisted double-meaning, ranging from a bitter sarcasm to a mild parody, all poking fun at the current status of things. While holding a cute baby, one can say, “Why, you are so ugly! Yes, you are!” only to mean how pretty the baby really is. Irony contains such twisted layers of meaning in a single expression: the denotation (what is actually said) and the connotation (what is meant) are different. Masterful in his use of such irony, Auden loads his poem “The Unknown Citizen” with biting, bitter, sarcastic, and accusatory double meaning—to poke fun at the automaton-like modern existence of human beings without any sense of freedom or individuality. The poem is a satire on the “programmed” existence of a modern factory worker.
Irony in the Careful Depiction of the Unknown Citizen
To intensify the irony found throughout the poem, the speaker of the poem is very judicious and careful in the depiction of this unknown factory worker, just another nameless face in modern world. This unknown citizen is depicted as having never been fired, which translates, in the total context of the pervasive irony, he did not have a spine to stand up for his rights. Such conformity, common among the “programmed automatons” in today’s society, is further strengthened by the facts that he was a due-paying union member, he was popular with his drinking buddies, he subscribed a daily newspaper, he was a law-abiding citizen, and he owned a “phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire,” just like the rest of the population. Yet nobody knows his name; rather, he is known by only, say, his social security number: “To JS/07/M/378/.” He is a truly unknown citizen. To obliterate any hint of his individual identity, he does not have an address that anchors him to a specific locality. Although the speaker tells us he was married, we do not know who his wife was, let alone his children. Now then why or who would erect a marble monument for such nameless faces in the crowd? What is the point? Why would “the State” erect a monument to memorialize the death of this automaton who did not own an opinion: “When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.” Such conformity pokes fun at modern existence, lacking individuality and freedom. He is a conformist, an unthinking robot, no one will ever miss even if he gets run over by a car. Why then should “the State erect This Marble Monument” for him? In that biting sarcasm lies the satiric irony.
Irony Through Impersonalization
The speaker of the poem further robs any sense of individuality in the unknown citizen by carefully blurring any particularity in his description; in fact, he has never been allowed to speak anything for himself as all the depictions about him have been rendered by an observer, possibly a federal or state agent, looking at bureaucratic records or reports. In fact, “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be,” and not by his family or his friends. The deliberate use of a passive voice in the above sentence further accentuates the passivity of this man that lacks any individuality: there is nothing particular about this nameless face in the crowd. Furthermore, he was not found by a police or even a government agent; rather, he was found by the Bureau of Statistics—to intensify the fact that he was just another number, and not a breathing human being. Such impersonalization further distances this nameless face in the crowd into obscurity. The speaker of the poem then obfuscates the individuality of this unknown man by calling him not by his name but by “One,” a mere impersonal pronoun, a John Doe, whom nobody knows or cares to know. In fact, he goes onto describe the citizen as “ . . . in the modern sense of the old-fashioned word, he was a saint. . . that served the Greater Community.” Such archaic use of the word “saint” creates a distance from reality, suggesting that this guy belongs to the past. Such quaint words, such as “saint” and “the Greater Community,” have no real meaning, a mere bombastic blast for this nameless Joe Sixpack that removes him further from being a real human with flesh and blood. Such careful dehumanization further intensifies the circumstantial irony.
Verbal Irony through Overbearing Capitalization
Even the correct capitalization in “Fudge Motors Inc.,” sounds, well, “fudge” ; for example, Oxford English Dictionary defines that the word “fudge” means “inarticulate expression of indignant disgust” first used by Oliver Goldsmith in 1766 (See Reference 1). Perhaps the best modern literal translation in American English could be “Horse-Crap Motors Inc,.” By intentionally capitalizing common words that should not be capitalized, the speaker of the poem punctures the true meaning of these words, making them sound empty, meaningless, sarcastic, and ironic: “the Greater Community,” “Union,” “Social Psychology,” “Producers Research,” “High Grade Living,” “Public Opinion” and “Eugenist.” They all sound so pompous, formal, arrogant, and bureaucratic, thus accentuating the fact these public agencies are far more important than any individual humans for whom they had been originally designed to serve. Rather, it is now we, the human ants, who must serve these offices, instead. In short, the irony is how we humans have been enslaved by these public or government agencies that were supposed to serve us.
Irony through Condescending Tone
On the surface, the speaker of the poem appears to celebrate and memorialize the death of this automaton-like factory worker—with a good measure of sincerity. Now that is the meaning on the surface. The real meaning is hidden in the irony. Like a government-programmed unthinking and thoughtless android, the unknown citizen has never stood up for his own rights as he lacked spine: “. . . he held proper opinions for the time of year,” “. . . our Eugenist says [five children he added] was the right number for a parent of his generation,” and he never bothered his children’s education—“And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.” The ironic tone here is condescending, if not disdainful: all his personal and private actions were “approved by the government or its public agencies.” The real meaning is, “What a moron this guy really was!” Think about for a minute: what kind of society are we living in if we must get approval from the government for every personal action we take? The unknown citizen has lived under a police state, watched by the Big Brother, deprived of individual freedom imprisoned as though in Huxlean Brave New World. Finally, the speaker of the poem then questions the sanity of such dead society with cut-throat sarcasm: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” The adverb “certainly” in the last line brings the condescending tone to its height. Note that the last sentence is rendered in a passive voice to heighten the passivity of this android, the unknown citizen. The irony here is biting and harsh and unsettling and memorable—a reason why most people remember Auden by this brilliant yet sarcastic poem.
1. Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Ed): CD Rom version