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.