This powerful, short poem was published in Auden’s Another Time. Scholars generally believe Auden was inspired to write it after spending time in Berlin, Germany, in the 1930s. ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant‘ was published in 1939, the same year that World War II began. It’s possible to compare the tyrant mentioned in these lines to Adolf Hitler, but, this context is not needed to understand what kind of person the tyrant is nor the fear they strike in other people.
Explore Epitaph on a Tyrant
‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ by W.H. Auden is a poem that was likely inspired by the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing how a tyrant, who remains nameless throughout the poem, was after “a kind” of “Perfection.” He wrote easy-to-understand poetry, believed he understood human folly and had a great interest in “armies and fleets.” Those around him did everything they could to maintain the tyrant’s goodwill, but when he was unhappy or angry, “little children died in the streets.”
You can read the full poem here.
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
The speaker begins with the word “Perfection.” This single term could be used to describe what a tyrant, or a dictatorial leader, is after. They want perfection in how they’re treated, how they are perceived, how their armed forces behave, how their people live, and more. The tyrant, the speaker says, is after a “kind” of perfection. The qualifying clause “of a kind” makes the word “Perfection” all the more interesting. Perfection, like the words “unique” and “ideal,” does not come in degrees. There is no “kind of” perfection.
By utilizing this interesting turn of phrase at the beginning of the poem, Auden is already implying that the tyrant has unrealistic expectations. He wanted to create a world that was, in his eyes, perfect. But, before the poem even truly begins, readers are already made aware that this is not possible.
The second line describes his poetry. It is deemed “easy to understand.” This may be due to the leader’s lack of skill with language or the fact that his desires are easily expressed. They do not need a great deal of complicated language to express themselves. But, at the same time, it could suggest that they do not want to use this kind of language to begin with. Perhaps, in an effort to make their poetry accessible to all readers. This poetry could be overly simplistic, reducing the world to simple concepts (the tyrant’s ideas of perfection) that are impossible to achieve or see play out.
The third line describes “human folly,” that is, humanity’s common mistakes and failings. The idiom “like the back of your hand” is used specifically as a cliche in these lines. This is an example of the simplified way that the tyrant sees the world (and depicts it in his poetry). He believes he understands human beings and their failings, but, the speaker implies, the world is not so simple.
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
The fourth line conveys the tyrant’s interest in the “armies and fleets.” The poet’s simplistic use of language here, including the word “greatly,” implies that while the tyrant was “interested” in the armed forces, he may not have had a great deal of useful input nor a truly hands-on approach. Additionally, the poet says “armies,” not “his armies.” Here, readers can assume Auden wanted the tyrant’s interest in other countries’ armies to come through. He likely wanted to, as Hitler did (and as all tyrannical leaders have throughout history), expand the area over which he ruled.
The fifth line mentions the tyrant’s ability to make the senators laugh. Through allusion, it is implied that this laughter is more out of fear and the desire to please the leader than it is out of true amusement. The senators “burst with laughter,” suggesting that they are incredibly passionate and sure in their dedication to him, or at least their desire to please him and maintain their own lives and livelihoods.
The final line includes the darkest image of the poem. Auden uses another well-known cliché that comes from Matthew 19:14 in the New Testament of the Bible. The original line depicts Christ speaking to the “little children,” saying, “forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Rather than conveying the tyrant’s mercy or love of his people, the quote is corrupted and used to describe the tyrant’s willingness to kill all who get in his way (this includes children).
When the tyrant cries or gets upset or angry, “children died in the streets.” These could be children in his own country or children in countries that he is at war with. His anger is translated into violence on a large scale.
On a final note, readers should also consider the title of the poem. The poem is an epitaph or a piece written in memory of someone who has died. The tyrant passed away, meaning that his power and sway were (at least mostly) lost. This is another example of how the ruler’s ideal world (“Perfection, of a kind”) was not achieved.
Structure and Form
‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ by W.H. Auden is a short, six-line epitaph (a poem written in memory of someone who has died) that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem follows the rhyme scheme of ABBCAC. This simple rhyme scheme creates an interesting example of juxtaposition. Its song-like quality contrasts with the dark subject matter that was so important in Auden’s contemporary world.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “human” and “hand” in line three and “laughed” and “laughter” in line five.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “when he cried the little children died in the streets.”
- Anaphora: can be seen when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And,” which begins lines two, four, and six.
- Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet contrasts two images against one another. For example, the depiction of the tyrant as a poet, humorist, and the leader of the country’s armed forces.
The main theme of this poem is the corrupting nature of power. In this case, the power that a tyrant or dictator has over his country and its people. The tyrant’s power is impossible to control and dangerous to all those around him.
The purpose is to describe how dangerous tyrannical leaders like Adolf Hitler are to their own countries and those they have any power over. This specific tyrant is never named, but readers can easily imagine the sway he maintained over his “senators” and over children in the street.
The speaker is unknown. Their identity is not important for the reader’s understanding of the poem. The only thing readers can interpret is that the speaker knows about a tyrant’s powers and can see through the facade of allegiance that this specific unnamed leader has around them.
The message is that tyrants throughout history have believed they understand the world and have the ability to control it. The poem suggests otherwise. That the tyrant is not clearheaded or aware of his role and the way that people behave around him.
Readers who enjoyed Epitaph on a Tyrant’ should also consider reading some other W.H. Auden poems. For example:
- ‘O Where Are You Going‘ – a poem that predicts the fate humanity suffers due to indecisiveness and not taking action.
- ‘1st September, 1939’ – was inspired by the start of the Second World War.
- ‘A Walk After Dark’ – a beautiful and complicated poem in which W.H. Auden uses a series of metaphors and other forms of figurative language in order to describe a walk at night.