Throwback Thursday: “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden (1939) – Discussion Questions and Perfect Intro

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.

“The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden (1939)

Discussion Questions and Perfect Intro

Discussion Questions:

1 – The “unknown citizen” represents modern citizens, who, according to the poem, are programmed like machines. How does the title help establish the tone of the poem?

The title is an allusion to “The Unknown Solider.” The “unknown citizen” is being honored for his conformity – a parody to the soldier’s sacrifice. The citizen is unremarkable in every way, without even a name. The fact that everything about the citizen is known, yet the title calls him “unknown” shows what the state of Auden’s world values and devalues – material worth is measured and quantified, but any human value, such as a name, is forgotten, not worth remembering. The tone of the poem is clinical and ominous, touting virtues of this unknown man, with intimate details, showing the breadth of surveillance typical of this world, and the distance taken to any human emotion, with phrases like “added five children to the population” shows the clinical way the state is speaking of this citizen, wishing for machine-like conforming citizens rather than real, living, breathing people. From the title onwards, you know everything human about this citizen has been taken from his elegy.


2 – Who is the speaker? What is his attitude toward the unknown citizen? Cite examples to prove this.

The speaker in the state, or at least a mouthpiece of the state, as it is the state touting the virtues of this unknown citizen and referring to the way different government agencies reported data on him, with phrases such as “Our researchers” to show who the speaker is. His attitude towards the unknown citizen is clinical, listing statistical data rather than any human or emotional information on him. The speaker points out that he “held the proper opinions” and owned what he ought to such as “a phonograph, a radio, a car” but in referring to his children it is phrased clinically, “he…added five children to the population.” The speaker also sounds proud of the unknown citizen, conveying his conformity is a virtue and an emulatable accomplishment, listing statistics about him that they consider positive. Everything he did was right, he had “no official complaint” against him, “he bought a paper everyday”, he “was normal in every way” says the speaker with a tone that conveys that other citizens should seek to be like this unknown citizen.


3 – Identify which types of irony are present in the poem and support with examples.

There is situational irony throughout “The Unknown Citizen” because this “unknown citizen” is being honored by the state with a monument, and they know everything about him, save for his name. If you remember someone, their name is typically the first thing you know. This type of memorializing is typically for those who showed immense bravery or otherwise did something remarkable, but this man is perfectly average and remembered for conformity. There could also be considered to be situational irony in the last two lines of the poem specifically; “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should have certainty heard.” These lines give the impression that freedom and happiness are not typically sought after, though they are generally considered ideals, but rather a sign of something “wrong” with a person. Elegy’s are typically very sincere and emotional, yet that of the “unknown citizen” is clinical and distanced from him as a human being.

The context of the poem could be considered dramatic irony, as a reader in 2018 would know how much closer the modern world has come to Auden vision than Auden ever could have expected in 1939.

Perfect Intro Prompt:

The poem “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden serves to paint a picture of a world where people are reduced to statistics and government reports. In a well-organized essay, explain how Auden conveys the sterility and soullessness of the modern world, and the techniques he uses to express his attitude, pay particular attention to tone and theme. Use specific references to the poem.

Perfect Intro:

With a clinical, ominous tone and a permeating theme of conformity, W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” shows the deterioration of the modern world, as individuality is replaced by submission, and pen-and-paper statistics are valued more than a person’s soul, where sterile existence has replaced any emotion as trivial as happiness. The titular “unknown citizen” is a perfect model, but his name is irrelevant to history; Auden’s vision of the modern world is bleak, with ideal humans more akin to machines.


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