#8

I hadn’t yet decided if I would use more than one poem from a specific poet for this project, but I think that I must. There are just some writers who I have an attraction to and simply must talk about more than one of their works. I first read W.H. Auden in my college poetry class and instantly became enamoured. He strikes me as one of those poets who regular folks may never have heard of, but who is revered by those who study literature.

He wrote throughout the 20th century and had a skill with verse and language that few could match. He weaves pop culture, psychological, political, and religous themes seamlessly into works with unrelated subject matters. He can often be witty, cruel, and brilliantly biting in the same poem, and is always ready to bring the emotional hammer down with a choice final line. In today’s poem “The Shield of Achilles”, he writes about the scene surrounding one of the most famously described items in antiquity.

Homer dedicates an entire book of The Iliad (Book 18) to the description of the legendary shield that has been forged for the hero by Hephaestos. The beautiful imagery that is said to be portrayed is seen by Auden as simply the ancient style of describing all scenes with the beauty of the natural world, even those of terrible war and suffering. So, in the poem we have two parts, one with what Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, is expecting to see on the shield, and what Hephaestos has actually created.

I love this poem for the dichotomy of beauty and reality, the short form verse and the long form, and for Auden taking the time to focus on such a seemingly small detail as that of a shield. It is that same level of detail that Homer himself thought neccessary, and thus they are connected across the millennia. But most of all I like to think about the god Hephaestos, so often maligned, disfigured, and here, tasked to create a work of art. How could that work not reflect the artist, the pain he has suffered, and the way he views the world? I wonder if, between the two writers, Auden was the one who really got it right.

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The Shield of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder
       For vines and olive trees,
    Marble well-governed cities
       And ships upon untamed seas,
    But there on the shining metal
       His hands had put instead
    An artificial wilderness
       And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
   No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
   Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
   An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
   Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
   No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
   Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

    She looked over his shoulder
       For ritual pieties,
    White flower-garlanded heifers,
       Libation and sacrifice,
    But there on the shining metal
       Where the altar should have been,
    She saw by his flickering forge-light
       Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
   Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
   A crowd of ordinary decent folk
   Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
   That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
   And could not hope for help and no help came:
   What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

    She looked over his shoulder
       For athletes at their games,
    Men and women in a dance
       Moving their sweet limbs
    Quick, quick, to music,
       But there on the shining shield
    His hands had set no dancing-floor
       But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

    The thin-lipped armorer,
       Hephaestos, hobbled away,
    Thetis of the shining breasts
       Cried out in dismay
    At what the god had wrought
       To please her son, the strong
    Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
       Who would not live long.

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