‘Epitaph On A Tyrant’ by W.H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

This brilliant poem is a precise and universal portrait of a tyrant. Auden, who lived in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, and who, like so many writers of his generation, joined the International Brigade in ’37 to fight the Fascists in Spain, saw his fair share of tyrants. I find it devastatingly powerful that this description can still be applied to tyrants of our own time. Tragically, the subject of this piece is timeless.

Reading this poem also brought to my mind the idea of a tyrannical God (those who have read the late Christopher Hitchens’ explosively erudite and enjoyableGod Is Not Great will be familiar with the notion of God as a dictator. Hitchens memorably described a world in which God exists as a ‘celestial North Korea’.) Although I am by no means an atheist, I find this image fascinating, Hitchens’ argument compelling, and would like to stretch it further while reflecting on this poem. I think that the tyrant in this poem can encompass the political dictator, a tyrannical deity, but also the Artist (i.e. poet, writer, painter, composer etc.), and even the scientist (whose intellectual quest to understand all can lead him at times to “play God”).

So, whether your read this poem as about God, a scientist, artist, or a human dictator, it’s clear that Auden really gets tyranny. Tyrants are after “Perfection, of a kind”, he writes. An insane, inhuman, deluded idea of perfection, of course. I am interested that Auden talks about “the poetry he invented”. All poetry is propaganda, in a sense; when we write a poem, we use all sorts of ploys and techniques to amplify our ideas or the message or emotion we wish to convey – to colour the reader’s mind. I find it fascinating that Auden seems to almost identify with the tyrant in the poem, in the sense that – as a poet – he seeks a certain symmetry, a certain perfection, through his art. Is that not why we create Art? To make sense of a senseless world? To create order out of chaos? Is that not the motivation behind all scientific inquiry? All of this paints the tyrant as a crazed sort of creator, prepared to do anything in order to achieve his mad visions.

“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter”. This line strongly evokes the way in which a powerful tyrant can so poison and enslave the minds of even intelligent, “respectable” people, that they will follow his lead. I am thinking here particularly of those who – though ordinary, “respectable” people – went along with the atrocities of the Nazi party as though possessed or sleepwalking. And how far will we go to create perfect Art? And to make our scientific discoveries?

The final line of the poem is devastating: “And when he cried the little children died in the streets.” This sentence reminds us that the subject of this poem is real and extremely serious. Every move the tyrant makes affects the life of somebody, somewhere.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh