Tuesday, November 8, 2016

We shall not cease from polling, and the end of all our polling will be to arrive where we started and reach conflicting conclusions.

My apologies to T. S. Eliot.

I thought about W. H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen" yesterday. I knew I had shown it to you before, so I checked into Ye Olde Blog History and discovered that I showed it to you in May 2008 and again in September 2012. Presidential election season in the U.S. both times. And since it is U.S. Presidential Election season once again, election DAY in fact, it is altogether fitting and proper that I show you Auden's poem again as a commentary on the incessant polling and daily rush to announce yet another set of polling results that have been hallmarks of 2016 in my country:

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.

Last time around I added the following comments of my own:

"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."

The comments section is now open.


  1. It's a great poem and perfectly timed. Your feelings about it match my own entirely. Blood running cold indeed. Upon seeing his name I immediately heard the words of another of his run through my mind - Funeral Blues

    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
    Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
    Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
    For nothing now can ever come to any good.

    Those last two verses are incredibly strong and bring tears to my eyes every time I read them. Thank you for the words today rhymes x

  2. I think the poem portrays an Orwellian society - perhaps like the world predicted in "1984". Arguably, computerisation has brought us even closer to Auden's vision. Interestingly, the poem was written at the outbreak of World War II. It is surely possible that Auden had the rise of the Nazis in mind.

  3. I think I take this poem a bit more literally. This Unknown Person was endowed with all the "righteous" qualities the observer wished everyone would have. In other words he became whatever that person perceived as virtuous. The net person would ascribe a new set of virtues. Soon the Unknown was perfect in the imagination of the beholder. After all he felt and acted as we felt we did.

  4. Thank you, and All Consuming for reminders of poems I have always loved. Though the first gives me the grues, and the second makes my heart ache.

  5. I first read this post just after it was written but couldn't think of an adequate comment. Generally speaking Auden has not been a poet with whom I have been able to come to terms. Having read your post several times since I may be changing my mind enough to delve into the loft for the book of his works I assume that I still possess. We shall see.