W. H. AudenÆs The Unknown Citizen provides a bureaucratic, i.e. statistical, account of an unknown male whose marble monument reads ôJS/07 M 378.ö The main theme of the poem is that the deceased lived a life so ôby the bookö that he is virtually unknowable other than in a statistical or clinical manner. Through the use of diction, rhyme, connotation, and other poetic devices, Auden brings to light the fact that having lived such a routine life the man was ôanonymousö while alive as much as he is as a corpse.
The speaker appears to be someone familiar with records of bureaucratic institutions. He describes the ôunknown citizenö in a clinical manner. He tells us the Bureau of Statistics cites ôno official complaintö against the man who ôwas a saintö (Auden 2; 4). Everything the man did he did in service to the ôGreater Communityö (Auden 5). He worked in a factory, never got fired, owned a car, did not make waves as a laborer, and was liked by his peers. His response to advertisements was ônormal,ö he had ôeverything necessaryö materially, he had the ôright numberö of children and he ônever interferedö with his childrenÆs education (Auden 15; 20; 26; 27). Diction helps convey the irony of the deceasedÆs life, one that appears as unremarkable as the inscription on his tomb. Auden uses the words ônormal,ö ôright,ö and ôproperö to suggest that the deceased lived a routine life that never admitted anything outside of what was considered normal, right or proper.
In the final two lines of the poem, Auden brings this irony most to light, ôWas he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heardö (28-29). The colon at the end of the first line is used purposefully to make us stop for a second, before the final impact and irony of the last line. The speaker is suggesting that the bureaucratic institutions of so