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
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
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
(From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.)

The Unknown Citizen, with its long rambling lines and full rhyming end words, has a bureaucrat as speaker paying tribute to a model individual, a person identified by numbers and letters only. It is delivered in, some might say, a boring monotonous tone, a reflection of the bureaucracy under which the citizen served. The poem is a powerful reminder to us all that the state, the government, the bureaucracy we all help create, can become a faceless, indifferent and often cruel machine. It raises the two important questions – Who is free? Who is happy?


Dat waren vragen van Andrew Spacey die het gedicht besprak in Owlocation
Auden schreef het gedicht in 1939, op een keerpunt in zijn leven toen hij Engeland verliet en uitweek naar de USA. Hij was gehuwd met Erika Mann, dochter van Thomas om haar uit de brutaliteit van de nazis te redden.


(Felix Nussbaum (Osnabrück 1904- Auschwitz-Birkenau 1944), The refugee, Brussels 1939)

Auden was a gifted craftsman as a poet, writing long, technically astute poems but he also embraced the move towards free verse, combining both modern and traditional elements. The human condition was his main focus, but he did say that:

“poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil…”

Teacher, essayist and social commentator, but above all a poet, he continued to live in the USA, after becoming a citizen in 1946. New York city was his home for many years.



tom lovellchrismas morning

(Tom Lovell Christmas Morning 1939)


Felix Nussbaum studied art in Hamburg in 1922 and a year later continued his studies at the Lewin-Funcke Schule in Berlin. Between 1924 and 1929 he studied at the Vereinigten Staatsschulen für Freie und Angewandte Kunst. In 1932 he was awarded the Rome Prize and with it a scholarship to study at the Villa Massimo in Rome. Following the Nazi rise to power, he wandered through Europe and in 1935 sought refuge in Belgium for himself and his partner, the artist Felka Platek. Initially, the couple lived in Ostend; two years later, they moved to Brussels. Following the German occupation of Belgium in May 1940, Nussbaum was arrested and interned in the Saint Cyprien camp in southern France. Several months later, he escaped and returned to Brussels, where he went into hiding with his wife. He created dozens of artworks reflecting the anguish of the persecuted Jews. Only with the help of friends, who secretly safeguarded the works, did these survive the war. In June 1944 the couple was denounced, arrested, and transferred to the Mechelen camp. In July they were deported on the last transport from Belgium to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered. (hieronder: Masquerade, 1939)

Nussbaum - Masquerade