Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

The world is always full of tyrants of one sort or another, but when WH Auden was writing most of his poetry in the 1930s, dictators and tyrants were in power across much of Europe, with the end result we all remember. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and probably several more in Central and Eastern Europe all made the world unsafe and their people miserable. It is the great achievement of Europe since 1945, building institutions like the EU, that such tyranny has been all but eradicated in that part of the world.

So in this short poem, Auden sets out to nail the characteristics of a tyrant, line by line. There is no particular person identified, all probably had these features. It’s a pretty good portrait of the anatomy of tyranny.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

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.

From <>

Line 1: the tyrant is idealistic, utopian, but with a vision which turns out to be warped, dangerous and destructive – racial purity, obedience to the party, nationalistic dominance are all features of these ideals, which still show up in some place even today. Was it George Orwell who said “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”?

Line 2: the tyrant thinks himself a poet or an artist, but his art is facile and superficial, lacking in the depth, complexity and ambiguity which are in mot real art.

Line 3: the tyrant is manipulative, he uses other people’s foibles and weaknesses to get his own way, often without them realising it. By the time the people wake up to the tyranny they are subjected to it is too late, so off to the Gulag or the concentration camp.

Line 4: Armies and fleets – the tyrant always wants a strong military force to dominate both his own people and rival countries. Was there ever a tyrant who preached disarmament?

Line 5: A tyrant creates sycophants – if he laughs, everybody around him had better laugh too, even those supposedly entrusted with power and influence. In fact, the respectable senators soon become nothing mote than puppets, window-dressing to disguise for a time the absolute power of the tyrant.

Line 6: As befits the final line, we come to the consequences, violence, death and suffering of the innocent people, even down to the little children who get caught up in the inevitable conflict. This never needs to happen if tyranny is resisted early enough. Can we learn the lessons of history?

The Poetry Dude


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