Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 06:50AM
National Book Foundation

The Shield of Achilles

By W. H. Auden

Original Publisher: Random House
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

In his 1972 interview with the Paris Review, W.H. Auden stated, “The arts can do nothing. The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al., had never lived. A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted.”

Against this corruption, Auden sets the precise, searing lines of his tenth collection, The Shield of Achilles. The title refers to Homer’s original ekphrastic image of an engraved shield of war with two very different sides—on one a golden depiction of a peaceful and flourishing city governed by the justice of laws, on the other a chaotic scene in which two warring armies struggle for dominance. These poems by Auden, written in the aftermath of World War II, seek a balance between the opposing scenes Homer describes. Even when not directly engaging the war, the poems in this collection return to this notion of the connection between duality’s two sides, the sea change that turning makes.

Auden’s music, as ever, is sure and deft, and his rhymes accrue discreetly in the mind, on the ear. But his stunning tonal range—his bold shifts between humor, religious inquiry, plain speech, and intricate syntax—is at its height here. Within each poem he weaves a compelling, truly moving work from seemingly disparate strands of engagement, reaching forward and back in time and salting with street talk. This tracked movement of mind brings the reader deeply into the act of creation without losing sight of that made thing, the poem itself. While many contemporary poets have learned such swerves from Auden, the urgency of his turns tracks the waver and lunge of true transformation.

The Shield of Achilles is organized into three parts. The first section, “Bucolics,” uses a series of ecosystems to introduce themes of violence and creation—and the tender thread that binds the two together, even as they struggle apart. In “Streams,” Auden asks, “how could we love the absent one if you did not keep coming from a distance?”

The second part, “In Sunshine and In Shade,” grounds the natural and social imagery of the first part in scenes of political unrest, bureaucratic blindness, and war, in days that wear grittily at their bearings, such as this one from the title poem:

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.

Auden’s rhymes underscore the inevitability and tragedy of such suffering, while condemning the innocent bystander. In “Ode to Gaea,” this section’s closing poem, Auden explicitly invokes such a sea change:

And what […] is natural: it is the old
Grand style of gesture we watch as, heavy with cold,
                        The top-waters of all her
            Northern seas take their vernal plunge,

And suddenly her desolations, salt as blood,
prolix yet terse, are glamorously carpeted
                        with great swatches of plankton,
            Delicious spreads of nourishment

That flipping of the surface's austere and reflective beauty for the deep's teeming, messy richness is the central concern of this volume. The poems in this collection are insistently tied to their day, with references ranging from politics to literature to ephemera, but these tethers are often then shaken, or shrugged, as that dense, sodden mass of what feeds the days, and words, of this work blanches in unaccustomed light.

The third section, “Horae Canonicae,” is composed of a seven-part sequence, set on Good Friday, mirroring the seven-part natural sequence of the first section. Apocalyptic imagery stands in sharp relief to the meditative tone of the earlier sequence.

Auden famously refused the lure of technological innovations like television, preferring a solitary austerity that granted space for the scope of his creations and the unbroken attention they demand. In “Nones,” he describes this work as “...restoring / the order we try to destroy, the rhythm / we spoil out of spite.” In re-reading this collection, I wondered whether it would be possible, in our networked and often-distracted world, to create such a symphonic work today. Certainly this is a work that forces us to look hard at our own days, at the life we make.

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work.
(Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Cleanth Brooks, Richmond Lattimore, Robert Lowell,
Phyllis McGinley, Muriel Rukeyser

The Year in Literature:

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