The Unknown Citizen

Author

Auden, W. H.

Genre

Poetry

Overview

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was a prolific poet deeply concerned with religious as well as social issues. He spent his time writing and teaching principally in the United States and his native England, receiving the King's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1937 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. His poem "The Unknown Citizen," written in the form of a dedication for a public monument, celebrates a life that "had everything necessary to the Modern Man"—except, apparently, a name. What does it mean to be a good citizen? Must we serve the greater community to be a good member of society? Auden's poem challenges us to think about these questions and reflect on our own definitions of normality, freedom, happiness, and citizenship.

Full Text*

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Source

Collected Poetry by W.H. Auden (Random House, 1945), pages 142-143.

Type

Reading

Themes

Connection and RelationshipCrisis and ConflictDiversity and DifferenceIdentity and CommunityLeadership and ResponsibilityMotives and ValuesOrganizing and ActivismRoles and BoundariesSpeech and ExpressionWork and Vocation

Big Questions

What makes it possible for us to connect to others? What gets in the way?What is the value of disagreement and opposition? How should they be expressed?What is the “status quo”? Does it need to be changed?What role do I play in my organization? Who determines this role?What does it mean to have a voice?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What do we know about the “unknown citizen”?
  2. What are the things that the narrator defines as “normal” in this poem? What makes them normal? Do they feel normal to you?
  3. What do you make of the lines, “he was a saint/for in everything he did he served the greater community”? Must we serve the greater community in everything we do to be a “saint”? Why or why not? If not, what else can we do to be a “saint”?
  4. What does not being a “scab or odd in [our] views” have to do with being a “saint”?
  5. Why are the questions, “Was he free? Was he happy?” absurd in this poem? Do these questions ever feel absurd to you? In what contexts?
  6. Does your happiness and freedom ever conflict with “serving the greater community”? Do they conflict with being “normal”? In what ways?
  7. Do you agree that if anything had been wrong, we certainly would have heard? Why or why not?
  8. What do you think it means to be a good citizen? Do you consider yourself to be a good citizen? Why or why not?
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