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Monday, May 16, 2011

Epitaph on a Tyrant

(Wystan Hugh Auden, photo by Cecil Beaton)

Yesterday, we finished our series of daily poems by the U.S poets laureate. These laureates are among the best of the country’s versifiers, speaking for us and speaking to us.

But there are several poets whose absence on this list is regrettable. Before we move on to the poets laureate of Great Britain, I’d like to pause to give two of them their due.

The first is W. H. Auden (1907-1973), an English-born American poet and essayist acclaimed as one of the great poets of the last century. He was an honest witness to the spirit of the age. "In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate," he once said.

Auden’s poems included the prophetic warnings he uttered after a visit to the Museum of Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1938, as dark clouds loomed above Europe. Referring to three paintings by Peter Bruegel the Elder he saw there on the walls, he wrote:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

Like one of his contemporaries, another great poet of memory and witness, Czeslaw Milosz, Auden also contemplated might be called the legacy of original sin on human nature, whether it be the example of the solitary tyrant at the peak of the pyramid or those who keep the common man at its base.


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.


(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

(To read more of Auden, especially his poem about Bruegel's paintings, click on his name in the "labels" below.)

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