In the W. H. Auden poem “Unknown Citizen,” as well as the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory,” we see two very glowing (on the surface) accounts of an individual. In the former, we hear about the titular citizen, only known through the weird, abstract figure JS/07 N 378, and in the latter Richard Cory; both of these men are said to have everything anyone could want, and do everything right. However, both poems subtly reveal a darkness and emptiness in the lives of these men that speaks very clearly to the human condition, in particular its apparent futility. In this critical essay, we will examine both of these poems and what they have to say about the role of a person in an increasingly bureaucratic, marginalized and materialistic world, as well as how these points are made.
In “Unknown Citizen,” JS/07 N 378’s life is recounted through the perspective of the Bureau of Statistics; even from the beginning, the reader can detect the impersonal nature of the report, as the real name of the man is not even said (or even determined), this further humanizing him, as well as making him more of an abstract figure, allowing us to put ourselves in his place. The poem details all the contributions he made to “the Greater Community” and society in general, though all of these things seem to be more or less unimportant or mundane. Among his many incredible feats is his ability to make friends, be a good employee, have five kids, stay in good health, and so on. His accomplishments are always relayed from the perspective of the entity that takes advantage of his patronage; the Union liked him because he paid his dues, the press “was convinced that he bought a paper every day”, and his opinions were always in line with the pervading wisdom of the time, whether for peace or war. Even the way they describe his education paints him as someone who stayed firmly out of the way of dissent – “our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.” The use of the word ‘their’ is interesting in that line, as it implies that the education is not for the students, but for the teachers; with the unknown citizen not interfering with them, they could go about their job with little trouble.
In terms of commenting on our culture, Auden seems to have meant this poem to reflect the growing importance that we place on institutions, especially bureaucratic ones, in order to validate us. His greatness as a man is not dictated by what he does, but seemingly what he doesn’t do – namely, express an individual opinion or engage in individual actions. He is merely turned into a product of the state, someone to fill the ranks and not cause any trouble. For this, he is celebrated.
In “Richard Cory,” we follow a similar path, but the admiration comes from his peers as opposed to members of institutions. The compliments offered to Cory are coming from “we people on the pavement,” the common man who looks at Cory on the street, but may not actually know him all that well. Looking at Cory from an outside perspective, he seems to have it all; he is impeccably dressed, he carries himself well and maintains a clean and likeable presence. Conversations with him always turn out well, he seems to have plenty of money, and everything else about him seems to stir up envy in his fellow man. The irony then comes from the fact that Richard Cory, this symbol of all that people want and don’t have, is secretly miserable enough to take his own life, as he “went home and put a bullet through his head” one night. The lack of foreshadowing of this moment hammers home just how abrupt and strange it seems to the narrator of the poem; it just happens, all at once, with little fanfare.
Richard Cory is different from the Unknown Citizen in that, barring some assumptions in the former poem that have no basis, Richard Cory kills himself, whereas the Unknown Citizen merely passes away. It can be reasonably assumed, given the Citizen’s predilection towards going with the grain, that he sincerely did not have opinions of his own, and therefore was happy to render his service and contribute to the greater good. Cory, on the other hand, absolutely hated his life, despite the outward appearance of strength, poise, and material wealth. The implication is that the riches and status he enjoys are not enough for him, his life still being a terrible one, while the ‘people on the pavement’ have less, but aspire to be him, as they imagine that his life must be wonderful.
The lesson to take away from this is that happiness is not determined by how much you have or what you do; instead, you possess the ability to dictate the meaning of your own life. For Richard Cory, having everything didn’t do it for him; whatever he was missing, fine clothing and schooling were not filling the hole in his life. The Unknown Citizen, presumably, is more than the kind of man the Bureau of Statistics would have us believe. However, since his job performance and adherence to social norms remain the Bureau’s only concern, this is the only relevant information they seek to offer on him, which is an extremely dehumanizing act, relegating him to nothing more than a statistic. Conversely, Cory feels like a statistic, but passersby on the street have a much different impression of his life than he does.
Both of these poems seem to argue that the increasingly material world in which we live is marginalizing us to a point where we are losing connection with our fellow man; either we become a list of the products that we buy and the things we do, or we are known as an image and persona that is incongruous with our real life. No one understands or comprehends how the protagonists feel about their life in either poem, as that, in the end, is something that only they can ever know.