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‘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

‘Their Lonely Betters’ by W.H. Auden

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Their Lonely Betters embodies everything I love about Auden’s work; it employs a traditional, rhyming form, but loses none of its poetic ease or beauty. For me, this shows the real mastery of Auden as a poet; nothing is ever forced, with his writing. He sweeps calmly and majestically through these four verses, ending on a neat and poignant final line that leaves you desperate to read the whole thing again.

The poem explores the differences between ‘natural’ beings in the garden – the “vegetables and birds” – and humans with all their artifice. I love the unassuming, understated opening. Auden expresses his feeling that words should be “withheld” from the creatures in his garden. It is as though he does not want to contaminate the innocence of nature with the ‘man-forged manacles‘ of language. He mentions the robin “with no Christian name”, singing its “Robin-Anthem which was all it knew”. This line reminded me of Mary Oliver’s The Kingfisher. In that poem, Oliver talks about the bird’s “rough and easy cry/ I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body if my life depended on it”. It is the sound of pure instinct – the essence of life un-muddled by thought.

The mention of the birds mating, and how simple it is without the sometimes deceitful mask of language, adds a tint of bitterness to this poem. Auden’s love-life was rather rocky, and I get a sense of real pain in his expression of how language and its inclination for telling lies confuses natural instincts in this poem. We are forever questioning and imagining and longing for other places, other people; we are never content. Of course, this can be both a blessing and a curse.

In the third verse, Auden reminds us that not one of the birds in his garden is “capable of lying” or knows that it is “dying”. They have no awareness of their mortality, and they do not tell lies. Is there a link between these two facts? Do we lie – do we write fiction – because we know that we are dying? I am certain our impulse for storytelling comes partly from our awareness of death; we want to pass on memories, make sense of our lives and distract ourselves from reality. As Auden says, none of those birds could “with a rhythm or a rhyme” assume “responsibility for time”. I just love those two lines. I love the idea of poetry being an act of assuming responsibility for time. For that is, in a sense, what we do when we write poetry — we are playing God.

As we enter the final stanza, Auden says “Let them leave language to their lonely betters”. This sums up the whole poem, for me. The birds will keep their happy innocence, and their “lonely betters” – that’s us – will remain lonely, with our language – our craft of lying. Language – source of so much beauty and delight – makes us superior in so many ways to non-speaking animals. But it also complicates our lives intensely. It is through language that we betray and lie to each other; it is through language that misunderstandings arise and promises are broken. Perhaps this is because language is ultimately inadequate for expressing what we really mean.

The last two lines are unforgettable. The noises that we make when we “laugh or weep” are natural expressions of untempered emotion – they are the sounds we make when words fail us. When grief is too great, we weep, having no words to describe our pain. When we are in hysterics, we laugh, and for a moment we are relieved of thought. “Words are for those with promises to keep”. Auden ends the piece with a lovely rhyme, remarking that we need language because we communicate; we make promises; we bargain and negotiate with each other. Animals do not do this. This ending for me has a positive tint to it; it makes me feel like although language allows us to lie, and although we often break our promises and betray each other, I would rather the promises were made and the lies told, than for nothing to be said (or written) at all.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The More Loving One’ by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)

This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.

I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.

The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.

Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.

As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.

The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.

As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

The Unknown Citizen’ by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports of his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of the old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the war till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report of his union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day,
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows that he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High–Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year;
When there was peace he was for peace; when there was war he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

This is the first poem that I have posted on request, and I would like to say that I am more than happy to take requests; I like a challenge, and I also really want to write about poems that interest you, dear readers.

The unknown citizen, when I first read its title and opening epigraph, reminded me of ‘The Tomb of the Unknown soldier’ in Paris, and the nameless graves of northern France. The sight of all those unnamed dead, remembered only in their capacity as soldiers, is of course unspeakably tragic, but I find there to be also something quite estranging there, because there are no names, no faces, no stories. Each of those men had a story that no statistic, rank or number could tell, and the same is true with The unknown citizen.

But I’m getting the tone all wrong. Auden’s poem is humorous, and satirical; it is the voice of the authorities ‘summing up’ a man’s life by statistics. It is bureaucracy gone mad. It is a tribute, by the “State” (with its ominous capital ‘S’) to an apparently satisfactory member of its population. The voice in this poem, though humorous, is also an unsettling one… almost ‘Big Brother-like” in its self-satisfied, false omniscience.

The poem starts by informing us that this unknown citizen was exemplary, in that “no official complaint” was ever made against him, that he was a “saint” for serving the “Greater Community”, being a soldier, and never getting fired from his factory job. He had sufficiently “ordinary” views as to never upset anything, “paid his dues” and occasionally socialised with his “mates” for “a drink”… like a good little consumer. The poem goes on to tell us that he read the newspaper every day, and had “normal” reactions to the advertisements”. There is a catalogue of information here, but by the end of the poem we realise that we still know nothing about this man; nothing that matters about the person has been recorded. The citizen remains “unknown” — he has been dehumanised — and this is a seriously dangerous situation being described, if you think about what was happening in Germany at the time Auden was writing this in 1939.

I think that the rhyme scheme of this poem (which you will notice is the simplest imaginable: ABAB etc.) adds to the satirical tone of the poem. Auden is very clever in the way he uses this almost sing-song rhyme scheme to add to the effect he creates. There is something trite about this rhyming voice, and over-conventional… and something sickening in its false-benevolence.

We continue to be bombarded with uninteresting information about this unknown citizen. He was “fully insured”, and conformed to buying all the modern appliances and comforts that were advertised to him. He had the “proper opinions” at the right time, and “added five children to the population”. All of this information is delivered with humour, for example, Auden writes about the five children, “our Eugenist says it was the right number for a parent of his generation”.

At the end of the poem, a question is posed: “Was he free? Was he happy?” But the questions are dismissed quickly as “absurd”, for, “Had anything been wrong, we would surely have heard.” This is a very cutting and ironic-toned ending to the poem, which so effectively evokes the idea of the sort of direction many feared society was headed in Auden’s day (just look at Orwell and Huxley’s distopian novels). Auden wrote this piece soon after he moved to New York from England (in ’39).

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘If I could tell you’ by Wystan Hugh Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so. Continue reading ‘If I could tell you’ by Wystan Hugh Auden