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Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” was written in 1939 in a tone meant to depict the Author’s discontent with America’s governance system of the time which had a relatively big government presence than his previous home. While describing an unknown citizen, Auden therefore made use of an exaggerated ironic tone express how he felt about the destruction of the rights of an average citizen by government, war, and technology. In this poem, there is a nameless citizen who is considered a “saint” by the state. Whereas the speaker in this poem showers the unknown citizen with praises, Auden satirizes the speaker and his values. To achieve this, Auden uses an ironic tone to portray the citizen as having lost identity through commitment to serve the “greater community”. For instance, for serving the greater community instead of dying for his country, the citizen became only a number, “JS/07/M/378”, (Kai, I, “The Use of Tone in W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”).
The citizen is first commended by the speaker who carefully chooses his words to reveal a patronizing tone. The speaker who presents himself as f he was a school principal, portrays the citizen as if the citizen was a good little boy. To begin with, the reader is meant to understand that the citizen’s “report of conduct” confirmed that the citizen was a “saint”. With carefully selected words, the speaker supports this view by informing the reader that the citizen “satisfied his employers” and that the citizen’s opinions were proper” hence satisfied public pinion analysts, (Cohen J, & Mastes C, 44). More so, the citizen is said to have “contributed the right number of children” and “never interfered” with his children’s education. After this description that convinces the reader of how happy the speaker is with the citizen, the poem redirects the reader’s focus o question the standards upon which the judgments of the citizen were based. This actually brings out the dramatic irony deployed to show contradicting opinion between the speaker and Auden of the citizen. The Author achieves this when he makes use of suggestive ambiguity of “absurd” and “wrong”, together with the co-notation of “free” and “happy” in the poem when he writes; “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard”, (Birdsall, “Auden’s The Unknown Citizen”).
Whereas the citizen is praised by the speaker because “he bought a paper every day/And his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way”, in the Author’s view, the citizen’s newspaper buying behaviour when linked to the citizen’s responses to the ads only indicated a superficial and mechanical reading character. Generally therefore, Auden made use of carefully chosen words to depict the underlying irony in the poem; that the reader doesn’t really know anything regarding the citizen’s personal life despite the massive buildup of statistics about the citizen, (Cohen J, & Mastes C, 44).