W.H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England in 1907.  As a young writer, Auden was influenced by the works of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1930, the release of his collection Poems, established him as a leading voice of his generation. Auden served in the Spanish Civil War and in 1939 he moved to the United States.
A prolific writer, Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Generally considered the greatest English poet of the 20th Century, his work has exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of poets on both sides of the Atlantic. Auden died in Vienna in 1973.

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.


Research and Questions for Reflection: “Epitaph On A Tyrant”

  1. Define the use of the word “epitaph” and “tyrant” as used in the title of this poem.
  2. What type of perfection might the tyrant be seeking?
  3. How is the tyrant in the poem seen as being human?
  4. Why is tyranny so frightening?
  5. How is a tyrant absolute?
  6. In another poem, Auden wrote: “But time is always guilty. Someone must pay for
    our loss of happiness, our happiness itself." How might these lines pertain to war? How do they reflect life in general?
  7. Auden wrote in his poem Shorts: “When Statesmen gravely say 'We must be realistic', The chances are they're weak and, therefore, pacifistic, But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps Their generals are already poring over maps.” How might these words reflect current reality? How would you interpret the word “pacifistic” used in the poem?
  8. Research Auden’s life and prepare a report on his life and words. Provide examples of his writings to inform your report.