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Free Sample Essay Example - W.H. Auden's The Unknown Citizen

This well-written poetry analysis essay looks at W.H. Auden's poem, The Unknown Citizen. Using an argumentative writing style, the paper argues that the poem's dramatic structure and formal tone reflect the banal existence of the citizen. Written for a college freshman literary analysis course, this persuasive essay features strong body paragraphs that present evidence in an interesting, succinct manner. It would be a good reference for students who are interested in analyzing poetry on a detailed level.

Big Brother is Watching

Most governments dedicate their monuments to heroes and kings, not ordinary citizens. Yet in W.H. Auden's The Unknown Citizen, the state erects a marble monument to a man who led an ordinary existence. Was this man rewarded because he was a great humanitarian or a loyal family man? Alas, by analyzing the poem's narrative structure, use of sound and progression of images, one finds that the man is only celebrated because he "served the Greater Community" (Auden 5) in all aspects of life and never questioned his oppressive government.

The narrative structure of Auden's poem emphasizes how the state only cares about the citizen's behavior and not the man himself. The speaker, a representative of the state, only knows the dead man as JS/07/M/378 - a reference number. Unlike in dramatic monologues, there is no emotional connection to the deceased in The Unknown Citizen - the speaker is cold and impersonal. While the speaker explains that the citizen "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word . . . was a saint," (4) this assessment only comes from "reports on his conduct" (3) gathered from the "Bureau of Statistics" (1) not personal contact with the citizen. Rather than deliver a eulogy for the dead citizen, the speaker chooses to analyze the man's behavior to see if it coincides with the state's regulations. The narrative renders the citizen's personality unimportant. Indeed, the state hardly cares whether or not the man "was popular with his mates and liked a drink" (13) so long as he "wasn't a scab or odd in his views" (9). It is more important that the citizen's "reactions to advertisements were normal in every way" (15) and that "he held the proper opinions for the time of year" (23-24) than if he were "free" and "happy" (27). If Auden's poem were a dramatic monologue, the reader could learn more about the citizen's thoughts and emotions - but in this cold narrative they only learn that the state wants people to live a banal, regulated life and not cause trouble.

The poem's use of sound reveals that the Unknown Citizen lived an ordinary, state-sanctioned life. Throughout the poem, the speaker consistently uses a simple rhyme scheme - "Except for the War till the day he retired/ He worked in a factory and never got fired" (6-7) for instance - to describe the man's existence. While the speaker occasionally shifts his rhyme scheme around - he alternates between an abab rhyme scheme and an aabb pattern - this technique only shows that the speaker is changing topics, not revealing important information about the citizen. Indeed, the speaker's rhymes only point out the banality of the citizen's life. For instance, the reader learns that the citizen "was fully insured" (16) and that "he was once in hospital but left it cured" (17). The fact that the rhyme scheme is hardly tampered with suggests that the citizen's life was consistently regular and ordinary - a sign that he "wasn't a scab or odd in his views" (9). One notes that the only time the poem stops is to reinforce the man's image as a passive, ordinary citizen. The poem's first end-stop occurs at line five, when the speaker points out that the "in everything [the man] did he served the Greater Community" (5). After this pause, the reader learns more about the citizen's state-pleasing qualities. For example, the speaker pauses again when he explains that the citizen "worked in a factory and never got fired / But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors, Inc" (7-8). The most significant pauses come at the end of the poem though, when the speaker asks, "Was he free? Was he happy?" (28). Here, the speaker reinforces the state's supremacy over the individual and dismisses any notion that happiness and freedom are part of the state's plan - "The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard" (28-29) he says. These additional pauses force the reader to acknowledge the state's total control over its citizens and how the man's passive life was led according to the government's will, not his own.

Analyzing the imagery throughout The Unknown Citizen reveals that the man served the state in every aspect of his life and was rewarded to show other people the benefit of doing the same. The poem starts by pointing out that there was "no official complaint" (2) against the man and that "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint" (4). Unlike other people who resisted the totalitarian regime, this citizen was a rarity because "in everything he did he served the Greater Community" (5). The speaker describes more of the man's qualities in order to show the people what a model citizen should be like. Thus, he explains that the man "never got fired, / but satisfied his employers" (8) and "paid his dues" (10) on time. By doing this, the citizen "had everything necessary to the Modern Man, / a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire" (19-20). The citizen's health was even better for obeying the state: "his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured" (17) the speaker says. The speaker consistently uses government resources to back up his claims and make the citizen sound legitimate to the people - "our Social Psychology workers found / that he was popular with his mates and liked a drink" (12-13) the speaker explains. He also cites other government departments like the "Bureau of Statistics" (1) and "Producers Research and High-Grade Living" (18) to explain that the man was "fully sensible" (19) when it came to serving the state. Like any good citizen, the man "held the proper opinions for the time of year" (23). "When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went" (24) the speaker notes. The man even had the state in mind when he had a family, for he had "the right number [of children] for a parent of his generation" according to the government's "Eugenist" (26). For those citizens who may have doubted whether the man's existence was an ideal one, the speaker explains that questioning whether or not the citizen was happy "is absurd" (28) because only the man's servitude to the state is important. By dedicating a marble monument to the man, it is implied that the state will honor those who loyally serve - and not resist.

Yet despite the state's assurances, the Unknown Citizen's monument is still dedicated to a reference number instead of an actual name. Being a model citizen does not amount to much in a country where one's freedom and liberty are nonexistent and one's entire life is planned by the state. Indeed, the man's epitaph illustrates this point: "To JS/07/M/378 / This Marble Monument is Erected by the State" follows the familiar rhyme scheme that marked the man's passive life. Ironically, serving the government all his life did not earn the citizen a reprieve - his monument continues to serve the state even after he has died.

Works Cited
Auden, W.H. "The Unknown Citizen." Elements of Literature. Ed. Robert Scholes, Nancy R. Comley, Carl H. Klaus, Michael Silverman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
 
1,169 words 5 pages
 

 
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