To Conform or not to Conform; do we really have a Choice! W. H. Auden’s “The unknown Citizen” and Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” are an expressions of the way they perceive the world. Both poets are portraying there thoughts on the political and social structures of society and seem to feel a great sense of loss, even anger at the way things are. In Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” there is a certain amount of irony and satire throughout. In the title; not only does the reader not know the unknown citizen’s name, this man seems to be unknown even to the people that are looking at him closely.
As for “The Skunk Hour,” the theme seems to be the corruption of values that is now so widely accepted. In Auden’s eulogy style poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” he uses satire through irony to convey his opinion about the absurdity of how in today’s society people are recognized by numbers and statistics, faceless in a crowd of millions. The reader is given the impression that the character in this poem has passed away by use of the past tense throughout, for example, “he did,” “he was. ”
The speaker seems to be reviewing this unknown citizen as part of a survey “found by the Bureau of Statistics. This nameless citizen appears to be a good enough guy, did everything the average man should do, he paid taxes, satisfied his employers, read the newspaper daily, responds to ad’s in the correct way, had the correct number of children, fights for the peace and supports the war, etc. All these facts show how ordinary he is and in turn sets an analogous tone for the reader, depicting that his life is vary routine. Afterall, “in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint/ [and] severed the Greater Community,” although it is doubtful he was aware of his contribution o the whole of society in this way.
To the State, citizen number “JS/07/M378” seemed more valuable as a statistic that would help to evaluate the standard of living and to assess whether this man has lead a virtuous life as defined by the State, then as a person with individual achievements. At the beginning of this poem the speaker makes reference to the unknown citizen as a number. At no point is this man given a name. Auden did this as a attempt to further his point that we are all recognized by numbers, for example in today’s society most Canadian’s can be identified hrough their social insurance numbers or students through their student ID’s, and when we die, all the accomplishments that we have achieved throughout our lives can be reduced to a mere statistic.
The fact that this man has no name is further proof that there is no room for individuality when attempting to survey the masses. Much like Auden’s “Unknown Citizen,” the tone and rhyme scheme in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” has the quality of wearisome constancy (one might even say it’s depressing). This monotony is representational of the routine that both the character’s lives seem to exhibit.
The main questions that are presented in this poem are: What has happened to the days of “Queen Victoria’s century [? ]” What is happening to the world around us? And, how can we survive in such an era? The speaker in the “Skunk Hour” finds today’s society loathsome and craves the days of the Monarch. At the beginning of this poem there is a feeling of loneliness and self isolation, in an attempt to quench the thirst “for/hierarchic privacy of Queen Victoria’s century. ” The once great monarch is crumbling and it would seem that this elderly woman, “hermit heiress,” is resisting the changes in society and ttempting to hold on to the past by buying up all the surrounding land. But like the land around her is falling, so are the days of old.
This is proven further by the images of a yacht being sold off to lobstermen, the rich are dying breed and people have to work harder for their money. Another image showing that traditional values have been corrupted, is when the speaker watches as people go to a graveyard and “lay together, hull to hull” in these “love-cars. ” He continues on by saying that his “mind’s not right,” it’s obvious that he is having a difficult time accepting this un-moral world, but he ight also be referring to his own sickness, after all he is watching these people make-out. The whole world seems to be going to hell and the speaker is the only one that can see it, there is a great sense of loss and loneliness, he says, “I myself am hell, nobody’s here. ”
In the final two stanzas, contain the image of the skunk which might be an analogy for the modern family; “the mother skunk and her column of kittens” are in search “for a bite to eat” in “the garbage pail. ” This may be representational how people are consistently searching and ven scrounging for stability and what some people will do to get what they need. The mother skunk feasts freely “and will not scare. ” Again this is much like today’s society, as the clichi?? goes, `it’s a dog eat dog world,’ in other words, once we have found that security that we have been searching for, we will not let it go easily. The author realizes that life is hard and anything but ideal, but to survive one must “stand on top of our back steps and breathe in the rich air” and reconcile ourselves with reality, as smelly and gross as it maybe (the image of the skunks).
Auden and Lowell wrote these poems in an attempt to ask a seemingly absurd question: does anyone care? That question still remains unanswered and widely disputed. Auden would say that the state/government does not care about the individual, just what the individual does for the whole. Individuality is inconsequential, as he puts it, “[t]he question is absurd. ” As for Lowell, the answer would seem to be that the question is irrelevant and that life is anything but ideal, but we must continue on and conform to survive.
Both poet’s reveal that people in every culture are molded by statistics, like hat presented in the “Unknown Citizen,” of what is considered to be average and how we are forced to conform. And most of the time these social norms are not questioned, but by writing these poem’s, both poet’s effectively not only question the world around them, but force the reader to do the same. We must keep in mind that it can be stressful for individuals to conform to society’s norms and to maintain a certain standard of living. This can result in the loss of individualism. Since everyone is so caught up in this conformity, one could say, that we will all end up becoming unknown citizens.