A reading of a short political poem
‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ is one of Auden’s short masterpieces. In just six lines, W. H. Auden (1907-63) manages to say so much about the nature of tyranny. You can read ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ here and watch Auden reciting the poem here, before proceeding to our short analysis of this powerful poem that remains all too relevant today. We’re going to go through the poem line by line and combine our summary of ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ with a close textual analysis of it, since every line yields new observations and questions.
W. H. Auden spent some time in Berlin during the 1930s, and it was here that he probably wrote ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, which was published in 1939, the year that the Second World War broke out. The specific tyrant Auden had in mind, then, was probably Adolf Hitler, though the poem can be analysed as a study in tyranny more generally, too.
We start with the word ‘Perfection’, which is immediately undermined by the qualifying clause ‘of a kind’. Something is either perfect or it is not; there is no such thing as perfection ‘of a kind’. This shows the unrealistic nature of the tyrant’s dream, which often stems from a desire to create some kind of utopia. The poetry the tyrant wrote, we are told, was easy to understand. This suggests someone who believes art should be democratic and enjoyed by everybody, and such anti-elitism appears to be a positive trait at first. But the late Geoffrey Hill observed, in defence of difficult art, ‘that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.’ Although we like to talk of difficult poetry as elitist and anti-democratic, perhaps it is the poetry which tries to fob us off with overly simplistic black-and-white depictions of the world which is the truly anti-democratic art. And besides, what does it mean to talk of somebody having ‘invented’ poetry? Poetry is made, composed, written, created – but invented suggests that the tyrant wishes to take credit for having come up with the idea of poetry itself, or at least a whole new kind of poetry.
The ‘easy to understand’ poetry of the tyrant then feeds into the cliché in the next line, about him knowing folly ‘like the back of his hand’. This seems to be deliberate cliché, a ready-to-wear idiom that everyone can hear, understand, and interpret. But it also summons the more sinister idea of the back of one’s hand – used as a weapon for discipline or control of another – which reminds us that this is a tyrant’s hand, and that the same hand that pens all that accessible poetry also wields weapons to crush those who step out of line.
It makes sense that a tyrant would be interested in armies and fleets – not just his own, of course, but other people’s, with a view to expanding his territory and taking over other nations. And then we have the neat dovetailing of the last two lines: when the tyrant laughs, the senators who serve him all laugh too – they don’t just politely chuckle along but positively ‘burst with laughter’. Again, this is a cliché – though here, a cliché with a twist. We usually speak of bursting into laughter, although bursting with laughter is not unheard of either. But given that this is a tyrant these senators serve, their (forced, false) laughter would be excessive as if they actually were in danger of exploding with the effort. And then comes the final chilling line: when the tyrant is angry or unhappy, children are killed in the streets because he lashes out and loses any remaining shreds of his humanity. Here, again, Auden turns a familiar phrase inside out, evoking and then evicting the lines of the New Testament, ‘But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19:14). There is nothing Christlike about this tyrant: he will not suffer the little children to come unto him. The little children, instead, will be the ones to suffer. But Auden is also inverting a specific phrase by the nineteenth-century writer John Lothrop Motley, in The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1859), citing a report of 1584 about the death of the Dutch ruler William the Silent: ‘As long as he lived, he was the guiding star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets.’ It’s not necessary to get this (very precise) allusion, of course, but inverting that last line (we can more readily imagine a chain of cause-and-effect whereby the death of a ruler caused the children to cry, than we can imagine crying bringing about the death of children) does help to bring into sharper focus the contrast Auden is making between a kindly ruler and an evil tyrant.
‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, like many of Auden’s poems of the 1930s, was inspired by the appalling events of that decade, but it also neatly encapsulates the qualities and behaviour of all tyrants, from Herod to Henry VIII to Hitler. And beyond?
Continue to explore W. H. Auden’s poetry with an interpretation of his classic ‘Funeral Blues’ poem, his underrated poem about the plight of refugees, and you can discover our pick of Auden’s poems here.
Image: W. H. Auden in 1939, by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons.
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Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, on February 21, 1907. He moved to Birmingham during childhood and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Old English verse. At Oxford his precocity as a poet was immediately apparent, and he formed lifelong friendships with two fellow writers, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood.
In 1928, his collection Poems was privately printed, but it wasn't until 1930, when another collection titled Poems (though its contents were different) was published, that Auden was established as the leading voice of a new generation.
Ever since, he has been admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information. He had a remarkable wit, and often mimicked the writing styles of other poets such as Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Henry James. His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically, a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse.
He visited Germany, Iceland, and China, served in the Spanish Civil war, and in 1939 moved to the United States, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman, and became an American citizen. His own beliefs changed radically between his youthful career in England, when he was an ardent advocate of socialism and Freudian psychoanalysis, and his later phase in America, when his central preoccupation became Christianity and the theology of modern Protestant theologians. A prolific writer, Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Generally considered the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, his work has exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of poets on both sides of the Atlantic.
W. H. Auden served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to 1973, and divided most of the second half of his life between residences in New York City and Austria. He died in Vienna on September 29, 1973.
Collected Poems (Random House, 1976)
Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (Random House, 1974)
Epistle to a Godson (Faber and Faber, 1972)
Academic Graffiti (Faber and Faber, 1971)
City Without Walls and Other Poems (Random House, 1969)
Collected Longer Poems (Random House, 1968)
Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 (Faber and Faber, 1966)
About the House (Random House, 1965)
Homage to Clio (Faber and Faber, 1960)
Selected Poetry (1956)
The Old Man's Road (Voyages Press,1956)
The Shield of Achilles (Random House, 1955)
Nones (Random House, 1951)
Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944 (Faber and Faber, 1950)
The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (Random House, 1947)
The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (Random House, 1945)
For the Time Being (Random House, 1944)
The Sea and the Mirror (1944)
The Double Man (Random House, 1941)
The Quest (1941)
Another Time (Random House,1940)
Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1938)
Spain (Faber and Faber, 1937)
Look, Stranger! (Faber and Faber, 1936)
The Orators (Faber and Faber, 1932)
Poems (privately printed, 1928)
Forewords and Afterwords (Random House, 1973)
Selected Essays (Faber and Faber, 1964)
The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 1962)
The Enchaféd Flood (Random House, 1950)
Journey to a War (Faber and Faber, 1939)
Letters from Iceland (Random House, 1937)
Selected Poems by Gunnar Ekelöf (1972)
On the Frontier (1938)
The Ascent of F.6 (Faber and Faber, 1936)
The Dog Beneath the Skin: or, Where is Francis? (Faber and Faber, 1935)
The Dance of Death (Faber and Faber, 1933)
Paid On Both Sides (1928)