Wyston Hughes Auden, or WH Auden, was a British poet, often considered by critics to be one of the best England has ever produced. Auden’s work is known, not only for its remarkable poetic calibre and craftsmanship but also for his skilful portrayal of myriad themes- ranging from the political, social, ethical, to the moral and even the individual. One of Auden’s best known poems and written, interestingly when Adolf Hitler was at the peak of his power in Europe, is a short, six line piece entitled- “Epitaph on a Tyrant” The poem talks about a man- an anonymous “he”- a perfectionist whose poetry was understandable and who, himself, understood “human folly” and the human psyche like “the back of his hand”. He was most interested in “armies and fleets” and when he laughed “respectable senators” burst out in cackles of laughter. Then in a sudden drastic change of atmosphere, Auden says- “When he cried, little children died in the streets”. One of the significant factors that lends Auden’s poetry a rare kind of brilliance is its ability to appeal to the reader in different sorts of ways.
Therefore, there are various different interpretations of this one short poem- the most obvious one being that of an allusion to Adolf Hitler- the Fuhrer of Germany, which rings true on almost every count. Hitler was a man yearning to establish a Pan German empire- a perfect pure Aryan race, he was man whose “poetry”- whose thoughts, beliefs, charisma, all reflected in his oratory which was considered brilliant and inspired millions to support him. It was, again through his understanding of human “folly” that Hitler managed to manipulate and delude an entire nation into turning their backs on their own humanity and follow him in his twisted, though well reasoned ideals. His primary interest was in the harsh physical manipulation of people and counties and therefore in “armies and fleets”. His power was so immense, so absolute that even “respectable” senators, dignified men of government felt compelled to laugh in the wake of his laughter and if he so wished, little children were gunned down in the streets.
In fact, there are many critics who believe that this poem was Auden’s own epitaph on Hitler- a personal ode to the man who had wielded such power in the years of his dictatorship and played no small role in shaping the world as we know it today and they had known it then. However the poem doesnot restrict itself to a merely historical purview. Auden’s poetry is such that it can be analyzed and interpreted in many more ways than just one and these interpretations themselves can change over time and circumstance. Hence, Epitaph on a Tyrant, though it does, most definitely allude to Hitler, discusses, also the very nature of tyranny itself- and presents it as the dynamic, multifaceted phenomenon it really is. By using phrases such as “poetry” and “perfection” Auden portrays the tyrant, almost as a misunderstood artist- a man who wishes to achieve the ultimate in what he shapes, through his creative abilities.
On the one hand, it is believed that Auden may be talking about a different sort of tyrant- a benevolent despot whose character and personality are such that people find joy in his laughter and die in the wake of his grief. A man, who through his charisma, alone, brings together multitudes and in his knowledge regarding human folly and his effective use of it, binds them together and achieves that elusive “perfection”- thereby rendering the phrase tyrant- ironic and obsolete. On the other hand, however, Auden could also, very well, be talking about the traditional tyrant of history- men of cruelty and intolerance who nonetheless, possessed the ability to, not only inspire millions and compel “respectable senators” to follow his example, but also to convince men to deny their innate humanity and turn on little children.
“And when he cried,
Little children died in the streets.”
When he ordered it, all protest was wiped out and man turned brutally on man. Though laconic and concise, written with an almost careless care and a seemingly erratic rhyming scheme, Epitaph on a Tyrant is one of Auden’s best and represents the time and age in which it was written, brilliantly. Furthermore, in typical Auden-esque fashion it establishes several other angles and opens the reader’s eyes to new perceptions and interpretations. Though quite short and hence eclipsed by some of Auden’s greater works, Epitaph on a Tyrant is a technical and literary masterpiece as well as a personal favourite of mine.
Epitaph On A Tyrant
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.
1. Years ago, writing on this poem, I tried to make all the details fit together. A tyrant’s desire for “perfection” led to an accessible, “easy to understand” poetry. A tyrant was therefore a political scientist, one in possession of an all-powerful art. One could see the populist yearnings, the revolution for the people, inherent in him, as well as something far darker: “He knew human folly like the back of his hand, and was greatly interested in armies and fleets.” His project must fail, for at its core it is a remaking of a people into something unfree and servile. It must collapse into pomposity and violence. Quite ironically, a poet can write a truer epitaph for the tyrant than any state propagandist.
I don’t think I was wrong in trying to get the details to make perfect sense. If you’re a serious reader, you should tease out the implications of each part of the poem and see how they work together. Your notes are the proof you’re thinking through things. But the end result for such efforts? Let me put it this way – a lot of people write decently. A lot of amazing writers now will never be remembered. A two bit tyrant who massacres his own people may have a better chance of that.
2. This poem does not trade in certain, precise answers, despite the underlying hard truths. It trades in impressions, our various perceptions of a tyrant. Perfection and poetry, speaking our hopes, our language, attend his arrival. Later, the serious business of making fools or corpses of political opponents. Not so much later, the lawful regime stands a shell of itself, the future is gone.
The tyrant is anonymous, a tragic historical moment. Yet the poem, in dismissing and indicting him simultaneously, puts the burden on its readers. How could tyranny possibly emerge? What do we want that makes us manipulable? Of what exactly are we neglectful?
3. On that last point, I might have something to add. It is a bit removed from the poem, but not from the problem of poetry itself. Tyrannies have emerged from sweeping nationalistic, traditionalist claims. Poetry can only distance itself from such claims with constant vigilance, it seems. No less than Seamus Heaney, speaking of the transformative power of poetry for the good, for the respect of various traditions, concedes how ugly things can get in his Nobel lecture:
Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se.
Tyrants have emerged from awful, crude poetic claims. The space for reflection poetry provides has not always been used properly. The ability to see differing approaches to common problems, to critique oneself, to appreciate complexity can be rejected most illiberally. We’re all tyrants in small degrees in imposing perfection, in making things too simple. What this poem does – what all poems do, if read correctly – is provide the snapshot we need to see the whole, begin exploring, think for ourselves.