Module C: People and Politics
“How does W.H Auden explore contemporary politics and the ways in which it affects the everyday lives of private citizens?”
Representations are universally subjective creations on a version of reality and reveal how composers often selectively manoeuvre and manipulate responder’s ideas and thought in order to influence their political climate. This bias is primarily represented through the portrayal of characters in texts which are often crafted in accordance to W.H. Auden’s politics and his past. Due to this, political truth is regarded as a fluid concept that is continuously re-evaluated depending on circumstantial events. This is evident in both “Epitaph on a Tyrant” and “The Unknown Citizen” as Auden reflects his cautionary view towards the tyranny of dictatorships that reduce humanity to numbers thus oppressing people.in WH Auden’s poetry, Epitaph on a Tyrant, which was purposely created by Auden as a critique, on the fallen democracies in 1930′ Europe and its effect on its civilians. The poem portrays that a poor leader generally has negative effects in relation to political, social and financial influences in the long term. The word “Epitaph”, meaning a phrase or form of words written in memory of a person who has died, suggests that the actions of Tyrants and oppressors are long remembered after their deaths negatively affecting the political, social and financial status quo. In the line “he knew human folly like the back of his hand” we can see that Auden loved to rejuvenate clichés, so beyond the usual meaning this image suggests a dictator smacking down the populace. The simile suggests that the leader has knowledge of our faults – an ability that allows him a frightening amount of control over his enemies, an ability that makes him far more fearful than he really is, is also genuine knowledge of our nature. Just because leaders turn into tyrants doesn’t mean that redressing some of the mass follies of humankind is totally out of reach. Knowledge of folly implies that he knows what is greater. The tyrant’s explosive actions have fearful consequences for his people which can be seen in the line, “When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter”. This line strongly suggests the way in which a powerful tyrant can poison and subjugate the minds of even intellectual, “respectable” people, that they will follow his lead. “When he cried the little children died in the streets”, here the poem’s tone shifts. Every other line is (at least on the surface) a compliment of the tyrant. Here is the very harsh reality of who he really is and what he’s capable of and the impact a tyrannical political system can have on the people. The quote is a textual reference to “The rise of the Dutch Republic” by J.L Motley in which he said, “when he died the little children cried on the streets.” This further illustrates Auden’s point of view and his depth of awareness of tyrannical rule and its repercussions. The inverse of words highlights the way that people may love a great leader, however, the leader in this poem rules by fear. This “tyrant” was a horrific and emotionally unstable leader which had terrible connotations for his people and destroyed the integrity of the nation.
The “Unknown Citizen” explores very similar ideas but from a bureaucratic perspective. Political systems that value their citizens as quantitative figures rather than qualitative individuals, have greater control over their community as they have no regards for their individuality or quality of life. This can be seen in the text where the “unknown citizen” is represented as a string of numbers and letters, “Js/07 M378” which dehumanises the individual by turning their identity into a series of letters and numerals, thus creating an ‘army’ of people that do what they are told to do, think as little as possible and “serve the greater community.” In his satire of “the unknown soldier” Auden is criticizing a political system that values citizens as figures, tools and resources with no regard for their individuality or quality of life. In the line “was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd”, the rhetorical questions highlight qualitative rather than quantitative aspects of life, which illustrates that the answer to this “question” is preposterous in the face of the government. The ironic use of “absurd” communicates a bureaucratic view of “happiness”. This evidence conveys that the government’s measure of an individual’s life is completely different to our own. Viewing individuals only as what they can provide rather than their own experiences. “had nothing been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” In this last line of the poem, the use of irony is very powerful as it demonstrates that “the unknown citizen’s” entire value of worth is wrong. In countries such as Germany and Russia of this time citizens were punished, and ‘disappeared’. 10 million Russian citizens disappeared during Stalin’s reign. Mass graves were discovered in numerous places. Similarly, if anyone were to speak our or acted against the Nazi party, were punished by imprisonment in concentration camps. The government used these methods to create a society of high standard from a bureaucratic perspective and used the lack of complaints as evidence of a good rule.
Ultimately, the poet W.H Auden presents “epitaph on a tyrant” and “the unknown citizen” where the political system is seen as an exploitative and selfish organization that is only looking for economic benefits. Auden explores contemporary politics and the ways in which it affects the everyday life of private citizens. Auden is critical of a government that doesn’t value the average citizen but instead sees them as numbers and uses them for personal and economic gain, thus the governments doesn’t promote individuality. When a leader rules by fear, his people feel threatened and may suffer from the political impact of the leader long after their death resulting in a non-prosperous and growing society due to the political factors.