Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Auden's Shield

Dear All:

Today's poem is from that pleasant man, Wystan Hugh Auden (and now you know why he published under his initials -- if you ever have children, don't do this to them). Here's the poem:

The Shield of Achilles
by W. H. Auden

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.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

You probably got this from context, but Thetis is the mother of Achilles and Hephaestos is the smith and armorer of the gods. Greek shields were carried slung over the shoulder when not in use. Often they were decorated. (Or perhaps it's only that the decorated ones were more likely to be preserved than the plain one. But soldiers at war do decorate things; check out the helmets of American combat soldiers.) And this is, no surprise, a pacifist poem.

This fits into a long tradition of using the Trojan War to discuss either war in general or, more commonly, whatever the current war is. People who are for the War du Jour evoke the heroism of the Iliad. People who are against it evoke its terrible waste of human lives. Note how the mention of "barbed wire" makes it explicit that the poet is not really talking about Troy but about Today. Note also how aptly the poem applies to the War in Iraq. I am not making a political statement here, only noting that all wars have an inherent similarity.

Auden was a pacifist. He came to the United States because he couldn't stand the war-mongering jingoism of his native England at the time. Which time was that, you ask? The very beginning of WWII. He didn't think England should get involved.

Well, Auden was a good man and we on this list are all good men, and good men may disagree. So it behooves us to be modest in our judgments, and to acknowledge the possibility that if one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century could be wrong, so could you and I.

All best,


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