The foremost reason why I think W.H. Auden’s poem The Unknown Citizen represents a particularly high literary value is that themes and motifs, explored in it, reflect the discursive realities of a modern living. At their turn, these realities are being concerned with the process of people growing increasingly disfranchised from their sense of self-identity.
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This, however, causes them to experience the emotionally disturbing sensation of an existentialist ‘anonymousness’. In my paper, I will aim to explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
When readers get to be exposed to The Unknown Citizen for the first time, many of them end up experiencing the sensation of a cognitive dissonance. This is because, even though the name of this poem implies the lack of a factual information about the citizen in question, the poem’s actual body contains a detailed description of what kind of a man the concerned individual was:
“He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc…
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire…
He was married and added five children to the population” (Auden par. 1).
Nevertheless, after having read the poem, they begin to realize the actual rationale that prompted Auden to name his poetic masterpiece, in the way he did. Apparently, the author wanted to advance the idea that our possession of the statistical data about a particular deceased individual, does not provide us with an insight as to what were the qualitative aspects of his or her stance in life.
This is the reason why, even after having found out about the ‘unknown citizen’ just about everything they could, readers usually do not get closer to understanding what accounted for his actual individuality:
“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (par. 1).
Hence, the philosophical implication of Auden’s poem – despite the fact that in today’s world people can well enjoy a number of life-comforts (due to their ability to afford buying technological gadgets), they nevertheless remain ‘anonymous, in the existentialist sense of this word. This simply could not be otherwise, because nowadays, it is specifically people’s willingness to suppress their individuality, while leading thoroughly conventional lifestyles, which defines their chances of securing well-paid jobs and attaining a social prominence.
However, the same willingness, on these people’s part, makes them less likely to leave a mark in history, while increasing their likelihood to be turned into a nameless ‘cannon meat’, during the time of war – just as it happened to Auden’s ‘unknown citizen’. Therefore, there can be few doubts, as to the thoroughly humanistic sounding of The Unknown Citizen. This is because this poem subtly promotes the idea that the cost of one’s eagerness to lead a conventional lifestyle is his or her ahistoricity (anonymousness).
This is exactly the reason why, I believe this particular Auden’s novel should be recommended for reading – it resonates perfectly well with the discourse of post-modernity, which defines the specifics of a contemporary living in the West. Moreover, it also contains insights as to why, despite their conventional happiness, many of our contemporaries nevertheless continue to experience a number of deep-seated anxieties, in regards to what they really are, as individuals.
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I believe that the provided line of argumentation, as to what I consider contributing to Auden poem’s actual value, is being fully consistent with the initial thesis.
Auden, Wystan Hugh. The Unknown Citizen. 13 Dec. 2012. Web. <http://www.geocities.ws/dspichtinger/otexts/auden.html>