Sunday, May 11, 2008

My favorite W. H. Auden poem

I was commenting on someone else's blog recently about W. H. Auden, the mid-twentieth-century British poet who became an American citizen (thereby putting back into balance the cosmic imbalance caused by T. S. Eliot's move in the other direction). You may be familiar with Auden's work without realizing it; his poem “Funeral Blues” was quoted in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Today I want to share with you another of his poems, “The Unknown Citizen.” It is one of my favorites:

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
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
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
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment 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 opinions 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
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

For some reason I haven't yet been able to put into words, this particular poem has always made me feel simultaneously melancholy and hysterical.


  1. Very thought-provoking. Hm-m....the array of impersonal measurements that are taken of our lives by those with various vested interests. Yes, it is simultaneously sad and amusing.

    Thanks for introducing W.D.Auden.

  2. Thanks as always for commenting. I believe you put your finger on what I couldn't find the right words to describe: the array of impersonal measurements that are taken of our lives by those with various vested interests. The lines "When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went" and "his teachers report that he never interfered with their education" resonate especially with me.

    I do believe you have oiled one too many hinges on that farm of yours. It's W.H. Auden, as in Wystan Hugh, not W.D., as in WD-40! (I was going to just let it go, but I couldn't resist.)