Originally composed and published 2005-12-23.
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.
Ask anyone what tyranny is and they’ll be sure to tell you and give you detailed examples of when they purportedly lived under a tyrant. They know full well when they weren’t allowed to do something, and they understand perfectly, so they think, that arbitrary control was exercised over them for the sake of arbitrary control only…
I think, in order to approach this poem properly, we need to admit something: We know nothing about tyranny. We know that we are limited, we know we have been limited. But tyranny is far removed from our experience, for most of us.
So let’s take the first sentence seriously. The tyrant is interested in “perfection” of a sort. Let us not dismiss this and say it is “perfection” that is used to tell all the rest of us what to do. That may be true, and the perfection being “of a sort” inclines us to cast doubt on the purity of the tyrant’s motives. Yet let us concede that a tyrant may actually be someone who is interested in perfection.
If we grant Auden’s speaker this, that the tyrant is interested in perfection, then we understand the next two lines. The tyrant is someone who, in his pursuit of perfection, wants to create the Ultimate Art. He wants something beautiful that is also simple. There is no way to avoid the fact that a tyrant emerges from populist urges. His art stems from what the many want, what he feels the many will understand. His art will be the art to end all art, for everyone can understand it, and thus have no need to go to anything “higher” or anything more complicated. All will be spelled out because one man has given to us perfection.
Further, why should we be sarcastic about this enterprise? He knows “human folly like the back of his hand.” His knowledge of our faults – an ability that allows him a frightening amount of control over his enemies, an ability that makes him far more fearful than he really is – is also genuine knowledge of our nature. He can correct us as human beings, he can bring us to something greater. Just because some tyrants go bad doesn’t mean that perfecting the people they tyrannize over is totally out of reach. Knowledge of folly implies that he knows what is greater.
What seems mainly to corrupt the tyrant is his actual holding of power. That he is “greatly interested in armies and fleets” means whatever knowledge he has is devoted to the martial – the crude, physical manipulation of reality – as opposed to enlightenment.
The tyrant wants to write the perfect poem that everyone will understand. Unfortunately, that means his means are not those of gentleness or thoughtfulness. What people understand is fear and bribery moreso than love. And so senators laugh, both out of fear and out of shared criminality.
And so children die, and the quest for perfection, merely because it entails having actual power, ends up destroying the future for all, quite literally. For the true tyranny is to try to make the present perfect, which is what making something beautiful that all can now understand is.
Real perfection would be what the artist does: creating something wonderful – something ideal – now, and hoping that others will understand it, to make the future better. Reality is not a template for one’s designs, and because it is not, others are free to grow and develop, and use one’s wisdom if they so choose. And if they don’t, well, they will end up responding to or complementing that wisdom, for true wisdom is not merely the product of one mind.