“The Unknown Citizen” and Auden’s Political Beliefs

“The Unknown Citizen” and Auden’s Political Beliefs


“The Unknown Citizen” is one of Auden’s many politically driven poems.1 The piece is a satire of capitalism. We are presented with an “unknown citizen,” this name appearing only in the title, who lacks any individuality. The poem is a clear reflection of Auden’s views on capitalism at the time. I would like to explore the underlying themes in this poem—those being capitalistic exploitation, surveillance, and resulting lack of individuality—and how they point to Auden’s own sociopolitical beliefs. For Auden’s beliefs I will mainly be referring to Edward Mendelson’s comprehensive biography on the poet titled Early Auden, Later Auden

Written in March 1939, “The Unknown Citizen” was one of the first poems Auden composed since coming to New York. First published in The New Yorker in January of 1940, the poem appeared later that year in Auden’s first collection of poetry published in America, Another Time. It appears to be an epitaph on a monument erected for an unnamed working man, presumably as thanks for his contribution to society. The subtitle reads “This Marble Monument is Erected by the State2 so we can assume that the voice of the poem speaks for the State when says “in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.”3 “Saint” here is of course not meant in a religious sense, but that this unknown man was the perfect member of society. He followed the unspoken instructions of the State excellently: “Except for the War till the day he retired / He worked in a factory and never got fired.”4 The mention of a “factory” already implies exploitative labor and is the archetypal capitalistic job in the post-Industrialization era. He is an exemplary subject in a capitalist regime, “For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.”5 This implicitly means that a person in such a regime is only worth what he contributes to the community. This is seen further in “satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.”6 The word “satisfied” is almost dehumanizing. He is a paradigmatic cog in the capitalist machine, assessed and judged by external forces. He lives in a system that only values him by his usefulness and disregards his free will and his mental state. “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd,”7 the corporate voice of the poem dismisses. His utility extends further than simple industrial labor. The poem also notes that “He was married and added five children to the population, / Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.”8

Notice the language here: Auden doesn’t say that he simply had five children, but rather that he “added five children to the population.” It is phrased in a distinctly utilitarian way, as though his children were another contribution to “the Greater Community.” It is deemed as “the right number” of children to have—another societal rule that the unknown citizen followed which appeased the State. The whole notion of a correct or incorrect number of children is absurd, and the existence of a “Eugenist” morally questionable. Moreover, on top of being the perfect worker, he was also the perfect consumer, thus further benefiting the capitalist society. Auden writes: “Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare / He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan.”9 He was sucked into acquiring an installment plan only to buy trendy things like “A gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.” It is obvious then that Auden is attacking consumer society which values material wealth over emotional happiness. All in all, the unknown citizen seems to be an exemplary member of society, or rather, the perfect tool for a capitalist State.

Even the rhyme scheme supports the unknown citizen’s obedience. The poem is only one stanza and its rhyme scheme goes as such: ABABACCDEEFFDGGHHIJJIKIKLLLMM. Although it doesn’t follow any established rhyme scheme, it remains quite orderly, as if following instructions. To put it differently, the rhyme scheme has order but it is unnatural, much like how the unknown citizen follows the State’s instructions in an unnatural, artificial, forced way. The lines consist of perfect rhymes, most of them in a masculine ending, creating a strict rigidity. The abundance of rhyming couplets almost makes it sound like a children’s poem, which oftentimes include a moral lesson for the child to learn. In other words, the unknown citizen’s life is exemplary, something to learn and take example from. It is as though the State is teaching other citizens how to act properly, or rather, how to act according to their desires. 

Given the intense satire of the poem, it is safe to assume that the piece is anti-capitalist. Whether or not the poet himself was as well, we are to discuss. There have been many books written documenting Auden’s ever-changing political ideation. Although he was certainly left-leaning, he never did identify himself with communism, or any other party at that. “The communism he imagined for himself,” Mendelson jokes, “was idiosyncratic.”10 Auden mentions his so-called conversion to communism several times . Commenting on his book The Orators, he says it was “‘a stage in my conversion to Communism.’”11 But as John Lucas explains in his essay on Auden’s politics, “Auden was [never] a wholly committed Marxist. […] he never joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, nor did he waste time on flat, ephemeral pamphlets or boring meetings.”12 Mendelson believes the reason why he didn’t convert was because he “knew he was too much of a bourgeois ever to join the Communist Party or ally himself directly with the working class.”13 “Nevertheless, during the 1930s he made much use of Marx’s ideas.”14 Thus, although he came to reject Marxism in the future, many of Marx’s ideas still coincided with his own. One thing was certain, Auden was very much in support of individual freedom, and therefore largely anti-Authority since his youth. He once wrote that “‘I left school a confirmed anarchist individualist.”15 Thus, the authoritative voice in “The Unknown Citizen” cannot belong to a benevolent ruling body. As a nineteen-year-old, Auden supported the workers who demanded better wages and working conditions during Britain’s General Strike in 1926.16 What do you call a supporter of this strike, if not a socialist, or at least anti-capitalist? For some more concrete evidence of Auden’s attitude towards capitalism, I would like to refer to a chart Auden compiled in 1932 which relates political terms to Christian ones:


The C. Party The Four Archangels
The capitalist system Satan
The ruling classes The Devils
Starvation, war, unemployment Hell Fire
The appearance of class distinction The Fall of Man

One can clearly see the Communist Party being associated with the forces of good in contrast to “the capitalist system” and “the ruling classes,” which are associated with the forces of evil. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Auden was indeed anti-capitalist, so the obvious capitalistic image of the working man in “The Unknown Citizen” is anything but the model life of a citizen. 

Another issue arises in reading the poem—that of surveillance. It is peculiar how, despite providing no identifying characteristic of the unknown citizen, the corporate voice of the poem seems to know a surprising lot about him. We are presented with quasi-statistical information about the unknown citizen collected by a plethora of fabricated government departments and workers. At first, some facts we are told seem like standard information that would be available to the State about a person: he worked for Fudge Motors, “paid his dues”18 to the Union, and “was fully insured.”19 However, the deeper one analyzes the information, the more questionable its means of acquisition become. For example, we are told that “he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views.”20 How could the State know what personal opinion he held? That would require them gathering information from people he was close to. Even in the last line, when the corporate voice says “Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard,”21 implies that the State knows everything there is to know about the unknown citizen. It is “absurd”22 to think he held other opinions or was unhappy because then the State would have known. The surveillance is very extreme in this case. About the unknown citizen’s opinions Auden writes:

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.23

The second line here, “he was popular with his mates,” once again implies that the State obtained information from the people around him. Perhaps they directly asked said “mates” about their opinions of him. Next, it is unclear how “The Press” would have known about his buying a paper every day. The only person who could know that for sure would be the person selling him the paper—and even then, only if he bought it from the same person every day. What is most striking is the next line about his reactions. A reaction is perhaps even more intimate than an opinion, for one can hold the same opinion for years and discuss it with many people, but a reaction is an entirely new response to a specific stimulus. To get his honest reaction, the State would have to be watching him as he reads each paper for the first time. Knowing such intimate information about the unknown citizen would naturally require a high degree of surveillance, a degree that begins to breach individual freedom. This is shown further in the following lines: “Our researchers into Public Opinion are content / That he held the proper opinions for the time of year; / When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.24

Obviously, this once again shows that the State somehow knew his opinions, but the more important point is about the adjective used for these opinions. The word “proper” here is disturbing. “Proper opinions” indicates that there is such a thing as “improper opinions,” which would presumably be opinions that don’t align with those of the “researchers into Public Opinion,” and subsequently, those of the State. At this point the question about liberty arises. Does the State that the unknown citizen lives in allow freedom of opinion? This question will remain unanswered, but what we do know is that a State which monitors its citizens, such as the one the unknown citizen is part of, has the ability to mould people as well as their ideas. 

Surveillance of this kind is reminiscent of the USSR in the 1930s. It was a common occurrence for friends and neighbors to report each other to the police for any minor act of insubordination. Auden was no doubt aware of the strictness of the Stalinist regime and it is likely that the Soviet Union inspired the society within the poem. Mendelson notes that “Auden did not speak in support of the Soviet Union,”25 and that “He allowed himself to hope that what followed the Russian Revolution would not recur after an English one, but he knew better than to rely on it.”26 As Stalin’s USSR has shown us, surveillance is a formidable tool in the maintenance of power. This is because surveillance, even without repercussions, induces control. Subjects don’t want to misstep in fear of the threat of observation. So observation itself does not need to take place, as long as the subjects feel as though they are being observed at all times. This is explained well by Foucault’s theory of panopticism. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault summarizes, “the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic function of power.”27 “The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour.”28 In this way, the State can affect and even shape people’s opinions. Thus, their thoughts are not their own; they were artificially implanted in the people’s minds. This obviously infringes upon people’s liberty and prohibits critical thought. This is a colossal issue in Auden’s eyes because throughout his life, regardless of his changing political ideology, Auden always had a strong “concern for freedom and choice.”29

This brings me to the next issue raised in the poem—that of individuality. If an authoritarian State allows only one line of thinking, then, in fear of a threat, all citizens will follow that line of thinking, therefore leaving no room for opinionative differences. Sreenivasan notes that ‘the unknown citizen is manufactured into a docile body through a constant threat of surveillance that the state shapes even his subjectivity and ‘opinions.’”30 Without independent opinions, there is no individuality. A society with no individuality cannot be a fructuous society. Even Auden himself said that “A real society can only be composed of persons. A person is an individual.”31 The unknown citizen can hardly be described as “an individual.” Auden greatly “emphasized […] the value of unique personality,”32 which we see none of in the unknown citizen. He is unremarkable in every sense and seems to hold no original opinions. For example, in the line “He wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,”33 ‘odd’ is left intentionally ambiguous here; we are not told what the norm for views is, only that his fell in line with the norm. Furthermore, he is said to have “had everything necessary to the Modern Man, / A gramophone, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire.”34

It is obvious that the unknown citizen simply follows the general trend and buys whatever is deemed popular. But on top of that, he is identified by the objects he possessed, rather than personality qualities he had. In everything he followed the general public or social and governmental institutions. He never acted out of bounds and certainly did not voice any objections to people or institutions: “And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.”35 All these instances add up to an image of a citizen whose whole personhood is shaped by the State. Lucas insists that “There is nothing of random observation in Auden’s method, no hapless recording of social ephemera. What we are given are synecdochic details, clues by which to read society’s ills.” 36 In this way Auden reinforces this external, monolithic view of the citizen, hence his being “unknown.” Auden warns against people becoming “behaviourist automatons”37 in a society such as this. Clancy brings attention to Auden’s distinction between City and State. Auden believes that “The City is a society ‘made consciously,’ a democracy ‘in which each citizen is […] fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice,’ whereas the State is a society most of whose members passively accept or are commanded to a unity rather than actively will it and work for it.”38 Importantly, in the subtitle Auden called the environment within the poem “the State.” In other words, from the very beginning of the poem we are implicitly told that the unknown citizen is not “an individual” who is “fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice.” Thus, the overbearing surveillance—structurally represented by the imposing capital letters of the various surveilling institutions—reminds citizens of the State’s power and “constructs a citizen’s subjectivity,”39 therefore stripping them of their individuality.

In conclusion, “The Unknown Citizen” raises several political or social issues that directly relate to Auden’s opinion on them. The capitalist State within the poem is exploitative and only values citizens based on their utility, which paints capitalism in exactly the way Auden perceived it—as “Satan.”40 The surveillance employed by the State is intrusive and assertive; it holds power over the citizens, making the state authoritarian, which Auden would certainly be opposed to given that he was quite anti-Authority. Finally, that surveillance affects the citizens’ opinions by means of threat, erasing the individuality that Auden places so much emphasis on. Overall, “The Unknown Citizen” presents many more issues than meet the eye and aptly represents, I believe, Auden’s personal political beliefs.

  1. W. H. Auden, “The Unknown Citizen,” in Selected Poems of W. H. Auden, ed. Edward Mendelson (Vintage International, 2007), 93.
  2. Auden, “The Unknown Citizen.”
  3. Auden, line 4.
  4. Auden, lines 6-7.
  5. Auden, line 5.
  6. Auden, line 7.
  7. Auden, line 28.
  8. Auden, lines 25-26.
  9. Auden, lines 18-19.
  10. Edward Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography (Princeton University Press, 2017), 132, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  11. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 143.
  12. John Lucas, “Auden’s Politics: Power, Authority and the Individual,” in The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden, ed. Stan Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 152, doi:10.1017/CCOL0521829623.012.
  13. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 133.
  14. Lucas, “Auden’s Politics,” 152.
  15. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 174.
  16. Lucas, “Auden’s Politics,” 153.
  17. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 139.
  18. Auden, line 10.
  19. Auden, line 16.
  20. Auden, line 9.
  21. Auden, line 29.
  22. Auden, line 28.
  23. Auden, lines 12-15.
  24. Auden, lines 22-24.
  25. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 174.
  26. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 174.
  27. Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Vintage Books, 1995), 201.
  28. Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 204.
  29. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 169.
  30. Janani Sreenivasan and Bhuvaneswari Gopalakrishnan, “An Analysis of the Panoptic State, Docile Bodies and Flat Affect in Select Poems of W. H. Auden,” Kala Sarovar, vol. 24, no. 3 (September 2021), 96.
  31. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 492.
  32. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 370.
  33. Auden, line 9.
  34. Auden, lines 20-21.
  35. Auden, line 27.
  36. Lucas, “Auden’s Politics,” 156.
  37. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 133.
  38. Joseph P. Clancy, “Auden Waiting for His City,” The Christian Scholar, vol. 42, no. 3 (1959), 188-189.
  39. Sreenivasan, “An Analysis of the Panoptic State,” 95.
  40. Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, 139.
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