Epitaph on a Tyrant
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
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 street.
This poem, published in 1940, speaks to this moment when another tyrant is crying.
But Vladimir Putin is an easy mark. Everyone is piling on, which creates a moment of self righteousness: We civilized people would never act in this way!
This poem, like every verse of Scripture, is truly understood when we use it as a lamp to illumine our own shadow side, and not a blunt instrument with which to club our enemies.
You could of course name other “good” nation’s wars and “military operations” that have left children dead in the street, but you could also reflect on your own life. Where have I enforced some version of my own “perfection”? This is the departure point for tyrants, Auden suggests. Not brutality, at least not to start, but perfection, some ideal that is more important than other people’s lives.
Most of us have lived with a tyrant, at home or at work. We can avoid tyranny by laying down our need for perfection and seeking wholeness instead.