Friday, 25 January 2013

Poetry Reads: The Shield of Achilles by WH Auden


The first stanza from The Shield of Achilles by WH Auden is a contradiction to what Homer had described in the Iliad. Achilles’ shield was supposedly a work of remarkable beauty and craftsmanship as described by Homer. However, in this poem, on seeing the shield, Achilles’ mother Thetis expects to find a work of art on the shield. However she notices ‘an artificial wilderness and a sky like lead’. In juxtaposing a story from the ancient epic, Auden tried to reveal a contemporary world that was bereft of emotions and intelligence. He also tried to show a world that disregarded individualism and individuality.

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.

Auden drew on the futility of war unlike the ancient folks. The kingdom has been described as a barren land where there is absolutely nothing. It is the meeting place of an ‘unintelligible multitude’ that ‘congregated on its blankness’. This is an imagery of soldiers who cannot think and wait for further instructions to go to war.

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.

The blankness and muteness of soldiers are highlighted in the following stanza. This is a sketch of Auden’s views towards war and the state where individuals and individuality cease to exist. People merely exist as numbers to the populace.

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.

The following stanza focuses on Thetis and what she expects to find for her son before he goes to war.

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.

The following stanza conjures images of borders, fences and soldiers from any part of the globe. It also reveals a note of apathy to war and killing.

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 following reveals a sight from the modern world where people seem to accept their fate to suffering and death.

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.

The following stanza concentrates on the ancient and mythical world of Homer where Thetis notices sportsmen, dancers and lives livening up to music. Auden drew a ‘weed-choked’ field which is a premonition of grief in the modern world.


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.

The next stanza reveals the indifference of a ‘ragged urchin’ towards rapes and murders. It is a revelation of a deceitful society where one can only expect the worst ‘who'd never heard of any world where promises were kept, or one could weep because another wept’.


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 next stanza reveals Thetis’ coming to terms with the fact that ‘Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles’ would not live for long.

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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(Review by Kabita Sonowal)

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