Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2018

The Unknown Citizen

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden is my favorite poet. Unfortunately, Poem Hunter only has one of his poems online, obviously dictated by copyright laws. The other major poetry database, Poetry Foundation, only has a handful. This motivated me to buy a used copy of the Collected Poems, a 915 page Vintage paperback for only $14.99. I turned through the pages a few minutes ago and picked out this quintessential 1939 poem that reflects his political sensibility–so far from the “proletarian” dictates of the Communist Party. There is no need to puzzle over its meaning. It speaks for itself.

When he was at Oxford, became part of the “Oxford Group” that was also called the “Auden Generation.” Stephen Spender, another favorite of mine, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice were also members. The Oxford Group was influenced by Marxism but as should be obvious from the poem below, with a distinctly Brechtian sardonic outlook.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/o7/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 saint
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 way.
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 cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment 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 education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.


  1. Line 4 should read “That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint”

    Comment by Allen — October 22, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

  2. There are batches of Auden poems online–for example here and here. Not sure if the last citation is legal, int. propertywise. Auden, also, was famous for revising his poems to make them, as he saw it, more honest–the famous example is his poem on the death of Yeats–and lovers of his poetry not infrequently find the revised versions less felicitous than the originals.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 23, 2018 @ 6:41 pm

  3. Also a nice selection here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poems/45593

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 23, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

  4. It is not clear to me if this unknown citizen is a force for good or evil in the world. If for example he never did anything that advanced the cause of evil and did only one thing that advanced the cause of truth and justice then he was a force for good. Or if he did evil things, but, only because he was forced to, and did the absolute least damage that he could under the circumstances then I think that we could also call him a force for good. But in to which category does the citizen above fall?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 23, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

  5. It annoys the heck out of me that Counterpunch does not allow comments. The following Counterpunch link really does fit this Unkown Citizen poem like a glove over a hand.
    The comment that I want to make about the CP article is that it spends a great amount of space pointing out that there is a difference between dissent and disobediance. The CP article then adds that in many if not most societies dissent without disobediance will just be brushed aside. But what the aritcle does not point out is that UNCOORDINATED disobidiance will be brushed aside just as easily as mere dissent. Therefore those that not only dissent but also disobey will pay a higher price and not get any better results than the one who just dissented. (At least the vast majority of the time.) OK OK all the readers here know that already. But I think that my point that uncordinated disobediance is no more effective than dissent is pretty darned important. Yet the author of the CP article did not make that point. If he did not make such an important point either he is unware of it. Or he does not want to point it out for some reason. Since I could not point that out on CP I figured that this was the next best place to do so.

    Oops sorry that I forgot to actually link the article. But I think that when you check you will know which one that I am talking about.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 25, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

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