Feb 6 W.H. Auden: The Unknown Citizen

This is an extension on the theme of irony. With this sort of literary tool a poet can become quite sophisticated or ham-handed – depending on his or her level of experience and ability. “In the work of an inept poet irony can be crude and obvious sarcasm,” according to the Introduction to Poetry, 7 ed. And if it’s too obvious, it can’t be taken very seriously (and is easily accused of melodrama).

In dramatic irony the element of contrast is active, what he plans to do ends up being the opposite task, or what he plans to avoid he ends up doing. Like the Oedipus’s father who in trying to avoid the death by his son’s hands by trying to kill the son as a baby ends up causing it. According to the textbook, dramatic irony is defined as “a situation in a play wherein a character, whose knowledge is limited, says, does, or encounters something of greater significance than he or she knows.” This also is true, usually the irony is something fateful that the character can’t avoid, but he’s drawn into it, because the cosmos (or the playwright) needs him to fall to his fate in order for something significant and historical to happen.

Is he a pawn, or is he facing this knowing that what he is doing is bringing about something better for the world around him? In Shakespearean tragedies, the latter is the case – Hamlet kills the evil usurping king despite the fact that he has to die to do it. Jesus faces Pontius pilate know that he must be sacrificed (if the preachers are to be believed) in order to bring a positive change. There are example in modern popular fiction where the characters are given a choice to bow out, but if they do, then the evil of the world will continue. I like to refer to my favorite bit of popular culture Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy is actually given the choice to be a normal teenager, but once given the choice she’s also given the knowledge that all of her friends’ mysterious deaths will be at the hands of vampires that she has chosen not to kill and defend her friends from.

Here is a poem, written in 1940, about the opposite. The irony is pretty obvious yet still very sophisticated. At the end of the poem, I still wonder was this unknown man once given a choice? Did he see it and say, “never mind”?

The path not taken

The Unknown Citizen

by W.H. Auden

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 taekn 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 Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidare.
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.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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