Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Speaking of W. H. Auden...

I posted the following poem of his about four years ago and the time seemed right to post it again. It is perhaps the ultimate epitaph:

The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden

(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 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 education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

I wish I could explain adequately why I like this poem so much, but I have never been able to find the exact words. Perhaps it is the sly way Auden thumbs his nose at the notions, current then (1939) and only intensified with the passing of time, that humans exist for the benefit of the state, that individuals must decrease and the collective must increase, that external measurements are all that matter, that we can learn the most important things about a person through a conglomeration of statistics.

In my humble opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.

I said in 2008 that this poem makes me simultaneously melancholy and hysterical (not as in funny, but as in alarming), and my opinion has not changed. The ideas that there is a “right number of children” and that it is laudable not to interfere with one’s teachers’ education and that one can hold “the proper opinions” and that what ought to be one’s strongest belief can so easily be overturned by those in power (“When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went”) make my blood run cold. I find it most ironic that more and more people find the world described in Auden’s poem perfectly normal.


  1. It is a disturbing poem and thanks for reminding me of it. The essence of freedom is surely in our ability to surprise the statisticians and the kick against the pricks and simply be ourselves. It's wonderful to be "an exception to the rule".

  2. Boo!

    Like YP, I am happy to be an exception to the rule... or perhaps I just think I am.

  3. Thanks! I did not know this poem (not surprising for me), but find it really amusing/cruel (delete as applicable).
    Thanks, I'll give it a few reads ...

  4. I agree with your analysis of this poem. Are you familiar with Atlantis?

  5. whinny2005, I had not read Atlantis until just now after receiving your comment. I like Auden's poems more and more as I discover new ones (although they are not really new to anyone except me), and may I also say that I like your minimalist blog very much.