Human Condition In The Unknown Citizen And In Memory Of W.b. Yeats

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The horrors of the Modern world do not escape WH Auden’s incisive pen as his readers are swept into a whirlwind of existential questions: who are we and what will we leave behind? Whilst situated in a context pervaded by an air of mutual hatred and suspicion, of political angst and turmoil, Auden examines the value of the everyman and the legacy of the individual beyond its bleak reality. The Unknown Citizen and In Memory of W.B. Yeats critique and ridicule the framework of character and question the integral notion of conformity versus individuality in a society honed by the Modernist agenda. The stylistic craftsmanship and subjectivity of language continue to unpack this question in the present day, testifying to the enduring tendencies of the human condition.

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Whether exploring an idealised, romanticised archetype or a pacifist, frustrated writer, Auden secularises the impressions of the everyman. The Unknown Citizen displays the propagandised fragments of Modernity and its institutions, underlyingly despondent as a standard of society. The poem glorifies a milieu of nationhood aligned to the connotations of white, western-democratic views and its implications such as the American dream and war-makes-us-men morale. Auden’s jocular, rather than solemn, tone is implored through his narrative voice to facetiously investigate the embodiment of the context’s masculine ideal. Resembling a satirical elegy, Auden’s complaints about the utterly unremarkable “unknown citizen” are achieved through the witty and ironic qualities of the figure deemed virtuous in a temporal society. Such fabrication of a boringly stultifying and anonymous man “in the modern sense of an old fashioned word, he was a saint” is elevated to a presence of romanticism and appreciation, upholding the poet’s mockery of a society lacking individual agency. Although we are leaked a perfectly adequate epitome of the ideal citizen — “normal,” “right,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular” —, the dry humour of the poem bestows simply another cog in the faceless, nameless, bureaucratic machine of humanity. A dichotomy to anonymity, In Memory of W.B. Yeats marvels the intellectual stardom and prominent figure of the modernist agenda, William Butler Yeats. Auden instructs his readers, in his similarly inspirational poem, to brood the ill world that exists without the subject’s literary idiom; a tragic elegy. The piece evinces intense lyrical beauty of the mystical, often pessimistic, nature of Yeats’ art and literature through a mournful tone and commemorative intention. Auden’s embrace of the tenets of modernism showcase the context as a time of great calamity, rendering the humanely empty imagery of “the day of his death was a dark, cold day” as sorrowful and melancholic in the prospect of death. In addition to the thermometer telling us so, the repetition of this phrase manifests itself as a symbol for the “Irish vessel”’s raw, unassailable humanity, a figure resembling vast significance and personalised praise. Auden’s emotive language and personal “distress” towards the subject contradicts his ridicule of the bland, unspecial citizen, challenging the modes of conformity and uniqueness in a period of the idealised “modern man”. The value of the everyman is juxtaposed by his personal and political dimensions of what it means to be human, blending a powerfully articulated insight into the facets of individual identity.

The legacy of the individual, as undefinable as the individual itself, is subjective, and thus, multifaceted. The faces that subsume this concept are the ambiguous or precise protagonists of The Unknown Citizen and In Memory of W.B. Yeats. Whether leading an overly catalogued life and complying to all that “served the Greater Community”, or voicing the fragments of human existence and praising the outlet of human expression, the two decline a likeness to each other and evidence Auden’s outlook on humanity: will a nationwide trend or one’s personality leave a legacy? The ironic epitaph of The Unknown Citizen “JS/07 M 378” coupled with the anonymous and similarly devoid-of-personality narrative voice; “our social pathology workers found that he was popular with his mates and liked a drink” establish an appropriately investigated capture of an archetype. However, Auden persists through the collective identity and persuasive voice – “our” – to challenge the notion that the patriarch is happy or free, as “the question is absurd.” The blandness of character and unextraordinary description of lifestyle persuades the reader to contest the heteronormative and conformist ideals of the modernist era. The poem subdues the assessment of one’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and goals, and leaves a legacy that is unknown and uninteresting. W.B. Yeats’s poetic reception strives further and deeper into the theme of individual legacy, representing a broader sense of the word in regards to his vast, surviving agency. As scholar James Persoon writes, “These two elements — the poet’s death as national and natural crisis and the poet’s death as almost completely insignificant — describe a tension within which Auden explores the life of the work after the death of the author.” Although “silly like us”, this quote supports the transcendence of Yeats’ poetry beyond “physical decay” and the metaphorical remnants of a tragedy, for “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”. The ambiguous grammatical construction of this phrase elevates the legacy of poetry to a magical and glorified aura. Auden encapsulates a hyperbolic render of Yeats’ life work and dedication starkly opposed to the unknown citizen as not surviving his fulfillment of the model man. The vessel of individuality, as a form of its own legacy, is adjacently explored with Auden’s poetry through the construction and tone of character. The protagonists’ impression on Auden, and the world, explore his inquiry into the timeless qualities of the human condition and the way in which they will be remembered.

W.H Auden mingles his experience with the uncertainty and perplexity of the Modern age context with a potent examination of humankind and its disposition. Although The Unknown Citizen and In Memory of W.B. Yeats engender a dichotomy of individual characters, Auden’s Modernist style and integration of universal tendencies comment on the diverse humanity of figures of the Modernist era. The notions of the everyman and the individual legacy transcend the barriers of context and interpretation to provide a powerful articulation of the human predicament.

16 August 2021

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