W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”, written in 1940, is a poem that illustrates a man that is seen by the government as a perfect citizen in an unrealistic society. The speaker of the poem is someone that represents the government, who talks about a monument that is erected for a citizen who has passed away. The man, who remains unnamed throughout the poem and is only judged by his documents and records, is admired for being a completely normal person.
In this poem Auden uses irony to show that a persons’ prosperity in society does not depend on their statistics or what the government has to say about them. Irony is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.” Auden uses many types of irony including parody and clichés, as well as verbal and dramatic irony to show that he was displeased with his government and society.
“The Unknown Citizen” is a great example of irony as it parodies well known monuments and corporations. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for example, is a monument that was dedicated to the services of an unknown soldier and all the Canadian soldiers who died unrecognized in any war. This poem parodies this monument by creating an unknown citizen in a society that is highly controlled by the government. Auden also parodies the very well-known company “Ford” in this poem when it states “Fudge Motors Inc.”
The common phrase “everything necessary to the Modern Man” is also used to describe the unknown citizen’s well-being. This is an example of a cliché and adds to the irony and comedy of the poem. This phrase is used in commercials and advertisements to persuade people to buy products because they are apparently everything a modern man should need. In the poem, Auden is ironically saying that the unknown man’s simple life with no extraordinary aspects was everything he should have needed.
Dramatic irony and verbal irony are also present in this poem. The tone of the poem is very dull and monotone which creates irony because the poem is supposed to be about something that is exciting and interesting. The last two lines of the poem read: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/ Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” These lines are another example of irony.
Here, Auden is gets across to the audience that the government did hear about the everyday issues and struggles in society but did not listen to or acknowledge them. The speaker in this poem as a representative of the government shows the audience that the perfect citizen just plays along with what goes on around him/her and follows the rules. The intended audience of the government speaker is made to think that being a model citizen means doing exactly what society and the government want, and to follow the rules perfectly.
The dramatic irony of the poem is that we, as Auden’s audience, know that the message that he conveys through the irony of the poem is the opposite of the government speakers’ message. The poem is ironic in the way that anyone can see how ridiculous it is that an unknown man who had never done anything extraordinary in his life would have a monument dedicated to him.
Auden does a fantastic job in this poem of portraying irony in many ways. He manages to write from the point of view of someone with different beliefs, to make his point of how disorderly society and the government were in his time. Auden clearly saw more in people than the rule-following robots that the government wanted them to be. The irony in this poem depicts Auden’s distaste for his society in a more intricate way than it would have had he just written outwardly about the issue. Overall, the poem “The Unknown Citizen” is a great example of how irony can be used to convey an important message in a more profound way.