The Unknown Citizen

February 17, 2007 at 1:14 pm 2 comments

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

A justly famous poem this – that combines the tone of Ogden Nash with the sensibility of George Orwell. Big Brother is watching you, but to him you are just a set of statistics, more or less close to the average. We are all sampling units – households, consumers, taxpayers, employees – never people; our identity and happiness distillable to a set of key numbers. (Elsewhere Auden writes: “This while when, practical like paper dishes / Truth is convertible to kilowatts”).

It is a theme that could easily grow stale and didactic. But Auden pulls it off with aplomb, packing just enough humour and surprise into his lines so that we never weary of their repeated message; a series of controlled explosions leading to that searing conclusion.



Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Wystan Hugh Auden.

In Praise of Limestone Under Sirius

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