The Unknown Citizen Analysis Poem Essays

Auden’s word choices to describe the unknown citizen—“popular,” “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “right”—seem appropriate for a man who is considered by the state to be a “saint,” a man who lived as the powers wanted him to live, a man whose life spoke of his adherence to his society’s values. However, Auden also uses a rhyme scheme that suggests a possible glitch in the state’s assessment of the citizen’s life. Perhaps the Unknown Citizen is not in exact harmony with the state, as the statistics suggest.

For example, Auden uses rhyming lines, but he varies the rhyme so that the reader is just slightly off-balance. The first few lines begin an abab pattern, but by the sixth line Auden fails to supply a b rhyme to complement the a rhyme in the fifth line. From then on, Auden rhymes in short spurts, such as “retired” and “fired” in lines 6 and 7, “views” and “dues” in lines 9 and 10, and “Plan” in line 19 and “Man” in line 20, yet he interrupts patterns, such as having lines 8 and 13 rhyme rather than 8 and 9 and lines 18 and 21 rhyme, not 18 and 20. Just as the reader is expecting rhymes, Auden puts off the rhyme for a couple of lines. Then he inserts three lines, 25, 26, and 27, that rhyme.

This scheme points to an undercurrent of meaning that is not accounted for in the states’ facts that define this model citizen. This undercurrent becomes a flood in the last rhyming couplet, which asks two important questions that go beyond statistical information and are not addressed elsewhere in the poem: “Was he free? Was he happy?” These questions are answered in an official, statistical way: “The question is absurd:/ Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

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Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, on February 21, 1907. He moved to Birmingham during childhood and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Old English verse. At Oxford his precocity as a poet was immediately apparent, and he formed lifelong friendships with two fellow writers, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood.

In 1928, his collection Poems was privately printed, but it wasn't until 1930, when another collection titled Poems (though its contents were different) was published, that Auden was established as the leading voice of a new generation.

Ever since, he has been admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information. He had a remarkable wit, and often mimicked the writing styles of other poets such as Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Henry James. His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically, a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse.

He visited Germany, Iceland, and China, served in the Spanish Civil war, and in 1939 moved to the United States, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman, and became an American citizen. His own beliefs changed radically between his youthful career in England, when he was an ardent advocate of socialism and Freudian psychoanalysis, and his later phase in America, when his central preoccupation became Christianity and the theology of modern Protestant theologians. A prolific writer, Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Generally considered the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, his work has exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of poets on both sides of the Atlantic.

W. H. Auden served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to 1973, and divided most of the second half of his life between residences in New York City and Austria. He died in Vienna on September 29, 1973.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Collected Poems (Random House, 1976)
Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (Random House, 1974)
Epistle to a Godson (Faber and Faber, 1972)
Academic Graffiti (Faber and Faber, 1971)
City Without Walls and Other Poems (Random House, 1969)
Collected Longer Poems (Random House, 1968)
Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 (Faber and Faber, 1966)
About the House (Random House, 1965)
Homage to Clio (Faber and Faber, 1960)
Selected Poetry (1956)
The Old Man's Road (Voyages Press,1956)
The Shield of Achilles (Random House, 1955)
Nones (Random House, 1951)
Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944 (Faber and Faber, 1950)
The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (Random House, 1947)
The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (Random House, 1945)
For the Time Being (Random House, 1944)
The Sea and the Mirror (1944)
The Double Man (Random House, 1941)
The Quest (1941)
Another Time (Random House,1940)
Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1938)
Spain (Faber and Faber, 1937)
Look, Stranger! (Faber and Faber, 1936)
The Orators (Faber and Faber, 1932)
Poems (1930)
Poems (privately printed, 1928)

Prose

Forewords and Afterwords (Random House, 1973)
Selected Essays (Faber and Faber, 1964)
The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 1962)
The Enchaféd Flood (Random House, 1950)
Journey to a War (Faber and Faber, 1939)
Letters from Iceland (Random House, 1937)

Anthology

Selected Poems by Gunnar Ekelöf (1972)

Drama

On the Frontier (1938)
The Ascent of F.6 (Faber and Faber, 1936)
The Dog Beneath the Skin: or, Where is Francis? (Faber and Faber, 1935)
The Dance of Death (Faber and Faber, 1933)
Paid On Both Sides (1928)

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