The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden - 1907-1973

(To JS/07 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.

More by W. H. Auden

In Memory of Sigmund Freud

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
     to the critique of a whole epoch
   the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
     who knew it was never enough but
   hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
     so many plausible young futures
   with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
     of problems like relatives gathered
   puzzled and jealous about our dying. 

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
     and shades that still waited to enter
   the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
     to go back to the earth in London,
   an important Jew who died in exile.

Only Hate was happy, hoping to augment
his practice now, and his dingy clientele
     who think they can be cured by killing
   and covering the garden with ashes.

They are still alive, but in a world he changed
simply by looking back with no false regrets;
     all he did was to remember
   like the old and be honest like children.

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past
     like a poetry lesson till sooner
   or later it faltered at the line where

long ago the accusations had begun,
and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
     how rich life had been and how silly,
   and was life-forgiven and more humble,

able to approach the Future as a friend
without a wardrobe of excuses, without
     a set mask of rectitude or an 
   embarrassing over-familiar gesture.

No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
in his technique of unsettlement foresaw
     the fall of princes, the collapse of
   their lucrative patterns of frustration:

if he succeeded, why, the Generalised Life
would become impossible, the monolith
     of State be broken and prevented
   the co-operation of avengers.

Of course they called on God, but he went his way
down among the lost people like Dante, down
     to the stinking fosse where the injured
   lead the ugly life of the rejected,

and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
     our dishonest mood of denial,
   the concupiscence of the oppressor.

If some traces of the autocratic pose,
the paternal strictness he distrusted, still
     clung to his utterance and features,
   it was a protective coloration

for one who'd lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
     to us he is no more a person
   now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives:
Like weather he can only hinder or help,
     the proud can still be proud but find it
   a little harder, the tyrant tries to

make do with him but doesn't care for him much:
he quietly surrounds all our habits of growth
     and extends, till the tired in even
   the remotest miserable duchy

have felt the change in their bones and are cheered
till the child, unlucky in his little State,
     some hearth where freedom is excluded,
   a hive whose honey is fear and worry,

feels calmer now and somehow assured of escape,
while, as they lie in the grass of our neglect, 
     so many long-forgotten objects
   revealed by his undiscouraged shining

are returned to us and made precious again;
games we had thought we must drop as we grew up,
     little noises we dared not laugh at,
   faces we made when no one was looking.

But he wishes us more than this. To be free
is often to be lonely. He would unite
     the unequal moieties fractured
   by our own well-meaning sense of justice,

would restore to the larger the wit and will 
the smaller possesses but can only use
     for arid disputes, would give back to
   the son the mother's richness of feeling:

but he would have us remember most of all 
to be enthusiastic over the night,
     not only for the sense of wonder
   it alone has to offer, but also

because it needs our love. With large sad eyes
its delectable creatures look up and beg
     us dumbly to ask them to follow:
   they are exiles who long for the future

that lives in our power, they too would rejoice
if allowed to serve enlightenment like him,
     even to bear our cry of 'Judas', 
   as he did and all must bear who serve it.

One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
     sad is Eros, builder of cities,
   and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

The Fall of Rome

(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Related Poems

Preliminary Report from the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering

We who wear clean socks and shoes are tired
of your barefoot complaining, your dusty footprints
on our just-cleaned rugs. Tired, too of your endless ploys—
the feigned amputations, the imaginary children
you huddle with outside the malls, your rags and bottles,
the inconvenient positions you assume. Though we remain
impressed by your emaciation and your hunger and,
frankly, find you photogenic and think your images
both alarming and aesthetically pleasing, to do anything
more than sigh will require a complex process
of application and review, a process that is currently
in the development stage. Meanwhile, may we suggest
you moderate your public suffering at least
until the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering
is able to produce guidelines. Do not be alarmed.
The committee has asked me to assure you
that they are sensitive both to the aesthetic qualities
of your suffering—the blank stares, the neotonous beauty
as the flesh recedes and the eyes seem to grow larger,
the haloes of flies—and to the physical limitations
of human endurance and the positioning of limbs.
They will, I am certain, ask that you not lift
your naked children like offerings to the gods.
On this topic, discussion has centered around the unfair
advantage such ploys give the parents of such children.
The childless, whether by choice or fate, are left
to wither silently in the doorways while those with children
proffer and gesticulate in the avenues unabated.
This offends our cherished sense of fairness,
the democratic impulse that informs and energizes
our discussions. Therefore, we ask for restraint,
and where restraint is lacking, we will legislate.
Please be forewarned. In addition, the committee
will recommend that the shouting of slogans,
whether directed at governments or deities, be kept
to a minimum. Not only is such shouting displeasing
aesthetically, but it suggests there is something
to be done. Believe me, no one is more acutely aware
of your condition than we who must ignore it everyday
on our way to the capitol. In this matter, we ask only
that you become more aware of your fellow citizens,
who must juggle iPods, blackberries, briefcases
and cell phones, lattes. Who must march steadily
or be trampled by the similarly burdened citizens
immediately behind them. Your shouting and pointing
does not serve you well. Those of us employed
by the agency are sworn to oversee you. If we seem,
as you suggest, to have overlooked you instead,
that is an oversight and will be addressed, I am certain,
in our annual review. Please be aware: To eliminate
your poverty, your hunger, your aesthetically
pleasing, yet disturbing, presence in our doorways,
above our heating grates, in our subway tunnels
and under our freeways would mean the elimination
of the agency itself and quite possibly a decline
in tourism. Those of us employed by the agency
have neither the stamina, persistence, nor the luminous
skin tones that you present to the viewing public.
Finally, to those who would recommend programs,
who would call for funding and action,
I must remind you that we have been charged not
with eliminating your suffering but with managing it.