Epitaph On A Tyrant Essay Scholarships

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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I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

-- W. H. Auden


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