What critical analysis can be said about W H Auden's poem "Epitaph on a Tyrant"?

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Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

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The poem "Epitaph on a Tyrant", by English writer W. H. Auden, is a six line poem that incorporates some end rhyme. The rhyme scheme is ABBCAC, wherein line 1 rhymes with line 5; lines 2 and 3 rhyme, and lines 4 and 6 rhyme. The poem consists of one stanza.

The poem deals with the thoughts and actions of a tyrant. Typically, a tyrant abuses his power and position of authority. Tyrants like to be in complete control and tend to quash, in a harsh way, any opposition to their policies and programs. In essence, W. H. Auden, in a subtle, understated way is discussing what happens in a society when a tyrant rules a nation.
 
Auden states that this particular tyrant sought "perfection." In other words, the tyrant was fanatical about instituting what he or she believed to be the right way to run the nation. It would be a selfish way, though, as the tyrant would desire to remain in complete control and be looked upon as the be-it-all and know-it-all for the people.
 
Therefore, dissent would not be tolerated. The tyrant's idea of perfection would be total obedience to his or her will. Perfection would also mean the freedom to change laws and such anytime as the tyrant saw fit to further his or her selfish purposes. Basically, a tyrant is spurred on by greed and a lust for power.
 
This poem is saying that the tyrant's way is easy for citizens of the nation to understand - it is his way or the highway. The tyrant understands human behavior and motives and knows that striking fear into the heart of the citizenry is an easy way to control them. People often acquiesce when their lives and livelihoods are threatened. Therefore, the tyrant manipulates and controls people by having strict punishment always hanging over them like the sword of Damocles.
 
In line four, Auden says that the tyrant is "greatly interested in armies and fleets". The tyrant is interested in power and displays of force. This is the tyrant's way of showing that he or she will not be messed with, either by people of the nation, or even foreign powers.
 
The fifth line of the poem indicates that the senators are "yes" men to the tyrant. They will appease the tyrant to maintain their political positions and save their lives.
 
The last line of the poem indicates that when the tyrant makes forceful, and probably illogical and even insane decisions, the populace, including children, suffers horribly. The tyrant's cry is his or her tortured mind, which leads to the tyrant taking action that hurts others.
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