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

Time can say nothing but I told you so,

WH Auden wrote this poem. The title describes the rhyme scheme – so is this a poem written to convey meaning or feeling, or is it a poem written to illustrate the poet’s technique in this particular form? Well, everybody can make up their own mind, and I guess it depends whether you are more conscious of rhyme and structure, or the sense of the words themselves as you read it.

Here is a definition of the Villanelle form, found on Google:.
A villanelle (also known as villanesque) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.


Time can say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time can say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time can say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away?
Time can say nothing but I told you so.
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

WH Auden

From <;


I think the clue is in the title…

The Poetry Dude

About suffering they were never wrong,

Art which references, or is based on, other works of art or other forms of artistic expression open up a broader experience by sending the reader to check out the work or art form which is referenced, and consider it in the way suggested by the initial piece of art. This is what WH Auden achieves in this poem, in which he writes about Old Master paintings which he has seen in an art museum. And there is even a reference to a particular painting, Breughel’s Icarus, of which the image can be seen here.

Its nice to read the poem and then look at the image to see if you draw the same conclusions as the poet.

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

From <;

In fact, the first 13 lines of the poem are a general commentary on the relationship in Old Master paintings between the everyday reality of ordinary people and the suffering or momentous event which is occurring to the protagonist of the painting. So in paintings depicting martyrdom, suffering, horrible, bloody deeds, you also see children playing, people, eating or walking, dogs doing whatever dogs do, etc.

And then in the final eight lines of the poem, the poet refers directly to Breughel’s painting of the Fall of Icarus, where he rightly draws attention to the foreground of the painting where a am is ploughing a field, oblivious of the drama that is happening elsewhere on the canvas. There is also a shepherd tending to a flock of sheep and a man sitting on the bank of the bay fishing, all getting on with their daily tasks as if nothing unusual is happening. You have to look hard at the painting to finally notice the pair of legs kicking above the water, near the ship, where Icarus has fallen and is presumably drowning. Even the ship has more important things to attend to, and sails on.

The poem opens up another dimension to our consideration of the work of art which is Breughel’s painting. It may also be a commentary in general about people’s willingness to immerse themselves in their daily routine rather than get involved in the momentous events of their time. In Auden’s era, that might have been something like the rise of Nazi Germany, facilitated by people in Germany and elsewhere turning a blind eye and just focussing on their own lives. And there are parallels In every age, including our own.

So this is an invitation to look at art for the unexpected or the aspect which usually goes unremarked. And the poem also makes us think about what should our balance be between earning our paycheck and making the world a better place.

The Poetry Dude

Some thirty inches from my nose

WH Auden could be whimsical, ironic, full of pathos, or comic. Here is comically challenging and aggressive, sending a warning to his critics – “Don’t get in my way or I’ll spit in your eye…’ There is a 30 inch danger zone in front of the poet’s face, so beware anybody who gets too close. Although the poet has no gun he has a weapon just as effective, so watch out world.

I Have No Gun, But I Can Spit

Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.

From <,But-I-Can-Spit&gt;

I’d better not say or write any more about this, or I may need to wipe my face…

The Poetry Dude

The piers are pummelled by the waves;

Poems inspired by the fall of Rome are not new to this blog. I have already posted examples from du Bellay from the 16th century and Quevedo, from the 17th century. This poem from WH Auden, written in the 20th century has another take on this destruction of a great civilisation by making it more timeless, resonating with the collapse of societies in other times. Even today, such a collapse of order and societal structure is too often repeated in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya (themselves great Roman provinces with the remnants of Roman culture still existing). Auden’s Fall of Rome brings home the misery and helplessness induced by the disappearance of government and security. And if this could happen in Rome, the greatest power on earth, nowhere is safe.

The Fall of Rome
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973
(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

From <;

The scenes successively depicted here are of desolation and disintegration, abandonment and the struggle for survival. All except the elite intellectual classes who delude themselves that all is well, through their imaginary friends and their trust, like Cato, in the enduring power of Roman virtue. But all else is falling apart, and it is the birds and animals who begin to take over, better adapted as they are to a constant imperative for survival. Just like in the Chernobyl exclusion zone…

The Poetry Dude

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

Many countries paid tribute to their war dead, particularly from World War 1, by erecting monuments to an unknown soldier, an unidentifiable body recovered from the battlefield who would symbolize the sacrifices and tragedies of all ordinary soldiers who lost their lives in these great conflicts. This concept is echoed in the title of WH Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen”, but here it is not heroism or sacrifice which is celebrated, but the banal ordinariness of most people’s everyday lives. Other poets also touched on this theme, TS Eliot for example in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, but this poem is a particularly nice example, wryly mocking the language and tone of official tributes to deserving and meritorious citizens or soldiers. The poem even underlines that it is to be inscribed on a marble monument, erected by the state. I would like to see that…

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

From <;

In addition to being a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the sheer banality of ordinary existence, it is also perhaps a vision of a surveillance state, a 1984-style Orwellian society where actions, opinions and statements are monitored and evaluated by those in authority. All of the statements in the poem about the Unknown Citizen are purportedly taken from official reports, surveys and enquiries. And all of these show the evidence that this citizen lived entirely in the mainstream of majority opinion and activity. If this were not so, there would be grounds for suspicion, it is implied. And, of course, questions of freedom or happiness are absurd in this totalitarian worldview. Conformity is the only value which matters.

Are we there yet? In many countries, for sure, and perhaps  everywhere…

The Poetry Dude

The chimney-sweepers

WH Auden, a modern poetic Mr. WH, happily combined lofty sentiments with everyday words and down to earth experiences. In this poem, ” Song”, he brings out the wonder and urgency of falling in love by telling the stories in one or two lines of verse of ordinary people, who have jobs and professions, but in all cases, love has the final word and makes them act.

A poem then about the impulsiveness and irresistable force of love when it comes into anyone’s life…


The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, “Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.”

And deep-sea divers
Cut their boots off and come bubbling to the top,
And engine-drivers
Bring expresses in the tunnel to a stop;
The village rector
Dashes down the side-aisle half-way through a psalm;
The sanitary inspector
Runs off with the cover of the cesspool on his arm-
To keep his date with Love.

From <;

In all cases, the power of love sweeps aside the ordinary actions and everyday responsibilities of the people in this poem – the chimney-sweep, the lighthouse keeper, the baker, the undertaker, the deep-sea diver, the engine-driver, the village rector and the sanitary inspector. Whatever they were doing, or needed to do, is set aside to go off and fulfil their date with love. The choice of professions is whimsical and unusual and thus holds our interest to the end.
Their abandonment of their duties has an almost comic element, you can almost imagine a cartoon with Cupid shooting his arrow into the chimney sweep so that he forgets to wash his neck.

There are many types of love poem, this one emphasizes the universality of the experience of falling in love by accumulating specific examples from all walks of life.

There is great potential for a follow up poem as the lighthouse keeper, the undertaker and the sanitary inspector return crestfallen to their posts, trying to pick up the pieces of their former occupations as they become disillusioned by love. The world stops in this poem, and would start up again in the next.

The Poetry Dude