Tyrannical Ambition: On Auden’s "Epitaph On A Tyrant"

Epitaph On A Tyrant
W.H. Auden

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.


  1. I’ve emphasized the tyrant as artist here, but isn’t it possible to read this poem as being about the artist as tyrant?

  2. The artist as a tyrant…
    I might as well try, seeing as how I live with a tyrannical artist ;)

    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.

    The first line was a little hard for me because art isn’t always about perfection- sometimes it’s about showing imperfections, mess, darkness, but then I’m limiting perfection. Who says something can’t be perfectly flawed or perfectly horrible? Art always tries to capture a perfect state; a moment in time, a place, a feeling, an experience, whatever.

    Sooo, we’ll say my subject is drawing a picture— he tries to convey the whole of this world inside of his head onto a piece of paper. He creates a new person in a new place and the picture is representative of something whole, or perfect.

    If he’s good, in this case he is, then everyone will understand- they’ll be able to see that world they’ve never been in or in other artists, they’ll feel or understand whatever emotion/idea is being conveyed.

    It is ideal to have a good grasp of psychology, of what will make people react.

    I don’t know if I can make the armies and fleets fit in any way other than my previous statement.

    Advertisers and tv producers sort of come to mind here creating a series of images in an attempt to control people’s behavior, influence emotions, because they study human behavior and at least think they know what makes people tick– and I won’t argue that they seem to be right for the most part.

    The last two lines I really like interpreted the other way, a real political tyrant and chaos and nervousness in the wake of a mood swing… but to follow the idea from before: the artist creating his art can and when he’s successful, does, control his audience.

    Automatically I want to say this isn’t relevant because artists have no real power, but that’s nonsense. Artists have a huge amount of influence over culture and attitudes, policy, just… so much.

    Well, there’s my jumbled up mess of a response. Go ahead and argue =P

  3. @ Amanda: I like what you tried to do – it’s always smart to try ideas literally when reading a poem,

    So ok. “Perfection of a kind” is like drawing a picture and creating a whole new world. What’s going to result from this?

    I think the easy way to read what an artist does is that he sets up the decline of his world. This happens in literature always, right? The world’s dumber than you, so it starts with easy-to-understand “poetry,” then to “folly,” then moves to “armies and fleets” and the inappropriate laughter and death.

    We’re getting a particular kind of artist here – the one aiming at “perfection of a kind.” So I think roughly what’s happening is that reason is turning into a concern with power.

    So that creates the problem for us: “folly,” “armies and fleets,” “senators,” “children” is a particular sort of picture. The only really famous thing in literature that it evokes is the shield of Achilles, and I don’t remember any senators there, or pictures of people doing dumb things.

    But I think that’s the image you need to make the cycle complete. The artist sometimes responds to tragedy and thinks he can transcend it by getting political. He ends up glorifying the maker of tragedy instead of producing proper critique.

    I agree this isn’t the best reading in the world. But I’m happy to try it anyway.

  4. Another good article. I really liked the poem. As a political artist, it strikes a cord on several levels.
    1.I agree that Americans have no idea what true tyranny is. That’s why so many worship Che and Castro. That’s why so many are embracing a system of socialism that does not work. They have no concept of truly doing without.
    2. In the end, politicians and governments are more concerned with power than the citizenry they represent. That is a major reason socialism doesn’t work.
    3. As a political artist, I engage in propaganda that supports my point of view. In the descriptions of my work, I give referances to my research when applicable. Unlike a tyrant, however, I am neither trying to change your mind, or care if you do so. I am venting my anger with society and sometimes offering a solution.
    As a Libertarian, I am fighting back against the Liberal bias of the art community. It has been my experience that the Liberal majority in the arts is neither open-minded, nor concerned with freedom of expression.
    If you would like to see my work on the subject, please check out these paintings:
    I also did an interview which has some of my sculpture: http://thepolitickingtimebomb.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/machinepolitick-frances-byrd%E2%80%99s-political-artwork-in-her-own-words/
    I would love to have your feedback.

  5. While I find this interperatation of this poem to be rather creative, as well as in interesting take on this peice of liturature, I would like to point out that it seems you have become a little to attached to the artist idea, even though artists are not directly referanced in this poem in anyway. Instead, I see this poem as a reflection of Auden’s opinions about the Tyrant Adolf Hitler.

    This can be implied from both the statement that the Tyrant was after perfection (Hitler is most remembered for his quest for the perfect race) and because this poem was writen by an author who lived in a time when Hitler was in power. Also, that Auden refers to the perfection as “of a kind” emphasizes the fact that Hitler’s veiw of perfection was one built on his own personal philosophy, and not any type of true perfection.

    The second line, “And the poetry he invented was easy to understand”, is refering to, not artists, but Hitler’s use of propaganda. He is comparing the propaganda to the type of poetry that is writen without much deeper meaning intended, the kind that can be taken simply at face value. This is because Hitler’s propaganda was not deeply analyzed by those who beleived it, his followers not taking the time to actually understand Hitler’s personal motives behind the various things he did.

    “He knew human folly like the back of his hand” because he was familar with the many attrocities of the human race, having committed a great number of them himself.

    When Auden says that he “was greatly interested in armies and fleets”, he is refering to Hitler’s intense quest for military power, combined with his conquests of expanding across Europe.

    “When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter” refers to the fact that the other members of the government who served under Hitler were under his control, and would share his feelings, opinions, and belifes, if only to appease him.

    The final line, “And when he cried the little children died in the streets”, makes for Auden’s final, and most powerful statement against Hitler–litterally stating that the man’s bad moods would resonate as the deaths of his citizens. The message delivered in this line is that it was those with him Hitler took a dislike that suffered the most under his rule.

  6. For me, the notion of the perfectibility of man referred to in line one reminds me of a quotation from Immanuel Kant, which I roughly remember as follows: “From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can be fashioned”. I came across this first in Isaiah Berlin’s book Against the Current. From what I know of Berlin’s life, he was exposed more directly to tyranny than Auden.

    An artist seeking perfection may be a worthy enterprise, but alarm bells should ring when politicians entertain the idea.

    It appears that the lessons of twentieth century history haven’t been entirely absorbed by our twenty-first century leaders; they would do well to read Auden’s poem.

    Thanks for reminding me of a poem I hadn’t read since I was at school.

  7. Thee’s obviously a play on this quote, too:
    “As long as he lived he was the guiding star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets.”
    Of the death of William the silent, in The Dutch Republic by MOTLEY (1880).

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