W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory”
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Throughout time, society has had its ways of developing what is to be considered the Ideal Citizen. This Citizen consists of many traits that are favorable by the many. If someone were to encounter such an individual, they would respect them, hear others good praise about them, and possibly even admire them. They would likely give the viewer the impression of an enjoyable lifestyle, one that many would trade with their own. However, the ways in which society operates have made it easy to not notice the internal conflicts and issues that even some of the greatest men of our society surely have. To be such an individual in many instances may not be what it appears. The following discussed poems are examples of such misjudgment.
In W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” each line from beginning nearly to end consists of something that this individual has done that would associate him with being a man of the “Greater Community” (Auden 5). All of his traits are either professional or approved of by the overall society. It is not until the last two lines that the poem strays slightly to a speaker’s perspective of the individual, which is the typical belief of the majority of society. However, in text one can see the irony within, and it is almost sad how wrong it may be. It is not the fact that this perspective is wrong, for it might not be. Rather, it is the fact that the characters unhappiness is not even truly considered as a possibility. If the character were indeed unhappy the world around him would never expect it.
In the example of W.H. Auden’s poem, it is the bureaucratic ways of society that generates many of the ideals, and therefore creates this boring and somewhat simple citizen. This is also shown near the beginning of the poem, in which the line “(To JS/07/M/378 / This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)” (Auden). However, it is not understood until the completion of the poem, in which the ironic last two lines bring out the entire meaning of this supposed ideal citizen. The citizen is nothing more than a number, which reiterates the idea of society’s lack of caring. On the contrary, in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory, the poem details less the traits that make Richard Cory an ideal citizen, and more the reactions and respect of those who encountered him occasionally and looked up to him. Immediately in the beginning it gives the impression that when Richard Cory made his appearances in public, all eyes were on him. He had his charm with the people, most likely the ladies as noted by “But still he fluttered pulses when he said, ‘Good Morning,’ and he glittered when he walked” (Robinson 7). The ideal citizen in Robinson’s poem is not seen as so much of a number as “The Unknown Citizen”, but the basic problem of society not caring about his problems, or for that matter not even recognizing that he may have a problem, still exists.
In lines 11 and 12 of “Richard Cory” it even states “In fine, we thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place” (Robinson 11) as an example of how society may admire someone so much that many would wish to trade places with them. This could be the ultimate example of how society lacks the foresight to even consider that how one presents themselves to others may not necessarily be how they truly feel. These people worked with the hope that they also would someday live the life of Richard Cory. They made sacrifices (no meat) to try and presumably save money, and therefore grew to dislike that which they did have (bread). Little did they realize that while they were making their own lives more difficult and miserable to try and attain a life that they believed meant total happiness, the individual they were trying to become was far from it. Up to the last line, it appears that the poem could not have anything on the negative side to say about Richard Cory. Therefore, it comes as a bit of a shocker to the reader that he “put a bullet through his head” (Robinson 16).
Both poems provide a clear description of what has over time become somewhat of a standard for a true professional gentleman. Sadly they also give a glimpse of some of the problems that exist for such individuals, and how little they are given consideration. Thematically, both poems build upon the original idea of an ideal citizen throughout the entirety of the poem. Each line contributes another comment, another positive fact. However, as both poems continue to build upon the idea, W.H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” simply hints at the possibility of something not quite right. “Richard Cory” comes out and tells one exactly what happens, creating somewhat of a surprise to the reader. This gets the point across slightly more bluntly to a reader who does not have a great understanding of the poem. Both poems are similar in that they change their perspective of the citizen in the final lines, but “The Unknown Citizen” is much more subtle about it, and also more ironic.
Both poems share the same general, but very true meaning. Overall, society may have done a great job in building the ideal citizen for society’s many needs, but just as many people think only for themselves, it never gave much consideration for the ideal citizen’s own, or any individual citizen’s, needs for that matter.
Auden, W.H. “The Unknown Citizen.” Literature: Reading-Reacting-Writing. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1997. 698.
Robinson, Edwin Arlington. “Richard Cory.” Literature: Reading-Reacting-Writing. Ed.
Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1997. 992