By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ is one of Auden’s short masterpieces. In just six lines, W. H. Auden (1907-73) manages to say so much about the nature of tyranny. You can read ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ 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?
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.
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. If you’d get hold of all of Auden’s major poetry, we recommend the wonderful Collected Auden.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: W. H. Auden in 1939, by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons.