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Epitaph on a tyrant -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1038) 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.
-- W H Auden
Perfection is the word. In six simple lines, Auden paints a portrait of a
tyrant that is both human and absolute. Auden's tyrant is not a political
machine - no mention is made of his military aspirations or his place in
history. Instead we have a tyrant who is frightening precisely because he is
so ordinary - he laughs, he cries, he seeks perfection, indulges his
interests. He is not even the motive force behind the destruction he causes
- he means no harm to the children, it's just that the momentum of his tears
causes them to be destroyed.

What makes tyranny so terrifying is the idea that the fate of an entire
country and all its people is governed by the magnified yet frail ego of a
single individual. And that's exactly what this poem captures.


[Minstrels Links]

Wystan Hugh Auden:
Poem #50, In Memory of W. B. Yeats
Poem #68, Musee des Beaux Arts
Poem #256, Funeral Blues
Poem #307, Lay your sleeping head, my love
Poem #371, O What Is That Sound
Poem #386, The Unknown Citizen
Poem #427, The Two
Poem #491, Roman Wall Blues
Poem #494, The Fall of Rome
Poem #618, The More Loving One
Poem #677, Villanelle
Poem #708, Five Songs - II
Poem #728, from The Dog Beneath the Skin
Poem #762, Miranda
Poem #868, Partition
Poem #889, September 1, 1939
Poem #895, August 1968
Poem #913, In Time of War, XII

16 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Adam Fulford said...

Just wanted to say thanks to Aseem.
I have been trying to recall this poem on and off for
years having imperfectly remembered
it in my schooldays.

Adam Fulford

Terri Jacques said...

whats "Epitaph on a tyrant" by WH Auden actually mean in simple words that a 16 year old like me can understand?? email me back at thank you

Anonymous said...

brilliant :3

viagra online pharmacy said...

Hard and full of resentment! I love it so much ! this poet is a genius!

Unknown said...

This poem is about Adolf Hitlers rein, perfection is what he wanted, he understood human folly which was how he maninpulated in a twisted way the entire nation. when he laughed senators laughed with him as the licked his bum but i dont understand what is meant by 'and when he cried the little children died in the street

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m faizal said...

it reminds me of dictators whose simple moves make the world around them anguished, ached....

Anonymous said...


The quote about the little children dying in the street is based on a quote from John Lothrop Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic, published in 1856. In speaking of the death of the Dutch King, William the Silent, Motley wrote, "As long as he lived he was the guiding star of a whole brave nation and when he died the little children died in the street."

William had led his country during much of the Dutch revolution against Spain.

Bryce A. Suderow

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