The Shield of Achilles
April 27, 2007 25 Comments
by W. H. Auden
I have always liked W.H. Auden‘s poetry. It gets under your skin, and disturbs you, even though it is funny on the surface. All of us would remember The Unknown Citizen, a verse that describes what modern human civilization has been reduced to, where men are mere numbers, record names in the state file cabinet on whom the state maintains statistics, but no face, no disposition, no countenance.
Digression enough. Coming back to The Shield of Achilles, which was published in 1955 and which Auden won the National Book Award. The poem is a take on the passage in Book 18 of Homer‘s Iliad, where the smith god Hephaestos makes a shield and armor for Achilles at the request of Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis. (Achilles’ armor was lost when his friend Patroclus wore it into battle and was defeated by Hector). In the original poem, Homer described cornucopia inscribed on the shield, the planets, gigantic cities, fields full of produce, cattle (heifer) and so on.
Auden takes a very different view. Thetis looks for symbols of wealth and power, but she finds desperation on the shield. Instead of crops and full fields, she finds ‘A plain without feature, bare and brown’, signs of desperation all around, troops lined up for battle without a twinkle in their eye, ‘an unintelligible multitude’, men who respond not to invocation, but to ‘a voice without a face’. She wants to see sacrifice and worshipping, but instead finds ‘three pale figures were led forth and bound/ To Three posts driven upright in the ground.’ This reminds us of Christ, ‘That carries weight’, and for whom there was no help. But unlike Christ, ‘they lost their pride/ And died as men before their bodies died’. She wants to see beautiful men and women sashaying across, athletes competing for the grand prize, but all she finds is a street urchin killing birds, chaos and anarchy, rapes and fights, a world where word is meant to be forgotten, and where it was unimaginable that ‘one could weep because another wept’. The great warrior Achilles, the man slayer, could not live long. Not when the world around him was such.
The poem has a lot of reflection of modern times, times of poverty and anarchy following the Second World War. The contrast that the poet draws between the idyllic world of bravery and self-sacrifice that Homer had described and the modern world with its disregard for rules, for honour and for pride, where men are but war machines without a thought for why they move to battle, and prisoners are executed without any thought for their weakness, is exceptional. The poet has matched word for word, phrase for phrase, every word of Homer that alluded to honour has been decimated to a symbol of our troubled times.
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.