W. H. Auden’s The Shield of Achilles was published on this day in 1955, winning the National Book Award for poetry in America. The choice of November 11 as publication day could only have been intentional given Auden’s provocative views on war, raised again by a couplet in the new collection titled “Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier”: “To save your world you asked this man to die: / Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?”
The title poem addresses war from a longer view. Homer’s description in the Iliad of the famous shield made for Achilles by Hephaestus, the Greek blacksmith-god, is a vibrant panorama of cosmic order and detailed human activity — marriages and legal disputes, hunting and herding, discord and bright hopes of peace:
…Here young boys and girls, beauties courted
with costly gifts of oxen, danced and danced,
linking their arms, gripping each other’s wrists.
And the girls wore robes of linen light and flowing,
the boys wore finespun tunics rubbed with a gloss of oil,
the girls were crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands,
the boys swung golden daggers hung on silver belts….
(Book XVIII, trans. Robert Fagles)
On Auden’s shield, all is reduced to a barren landscape of routine and indifference, to small acts of meanness and large military mobilizations, to a street urchin shuffling through a vacant lot with no memory “Of any world where promises were kept, / Or one could weep because another wept”:
…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….
Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) begins with Homer and uses a handful of modern poems (not Auden’s) to help frame his discussion of what caused the “Long War” of twentieth-century nation-states, and of what might bring peace to the new international order of market-states.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.