Sunday Pages: "Epitaph on a Tyrant"

A poem by W.H. Auden

Dear Reader,

This is Memorial Day weekend, an occasion to honor the memory of those who died in active duty military service—who lost their lives defending our country, our citizenry, and our democratic values.

It is ironic, then, that Mitch McConnell and the GOP voted on the Friday before this hallowed holiday to not investigate the attempted coup of January 6—the worst attack on our democracy since Booth shot Lincoln. The presumed objective of that failed putsch was to overturn the will of the people and install Donald John Trump as dictator-for-life.

More irony: The armies of autocracy who besieged the Capitol that terrible day, as well as the 35 craven Senators who voted to cover up the insurrection, are exactly the sort of totalitarian enemy our Memorial Day soldiers died fighting: in the Second World War, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan.

It is a profound historical ignorance that compels the MAGA minions to prefer a tyrant. News flash: tyranny sucks. There is a reason megalomaniacal strongmen wind up cowering in drainpipes or dangling from meat-hooks. We need to listen to those who suffered under Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini. We need to listen to those who were brutalized by Saddam, oppressed by Gaddafi, driven into exile by Pinochet. We need to listen to dissidents like Garry Kasparov. We need to listen to scholars of autocracy like Timothy Snyder and Ruth Ben-Ghiat.

And, as always, we need to listen to the poets.

For today’s “Sunday Pages,” I offer one of the greatest, W.H. Auden. He wrote this short poem in 1940, when the tyrants in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia were very much alive and in the business of Making Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia Great Again:

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.


Photo credit: Vladimir Fedorenko. “Laying flowers and wreaths to Iosif Stalin’s grave at Kremlin wall.” Russian Federation Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov laying flowers and wreaths to Iosif Stalin’s grave at the Kremlin wall to honor the dead strongman’s 130th birthday.