Audio

Make a Shield for My Son

February 27, 2007

Curtis Fox: This is the poetryfoundation.org podcast for the week of February 26, 2007. I’m Curtis Fox. On this week’s podcast, a century of Auden. If W. H. Auden were still living, he would have been 100 years on February 21st. Readings and lectures have started marking the centenary, not that his poetry really needs the attention. Auden’s poetry has never flagged since his death in 1973. Some of his poems have even made their way into popular culture. Right after September 11, his poem “September 1939” about the beginning of World War 2 popped up all over the web and even on NPR.

 

I sit in one of the dives on 52nd street, uncertain and afraid.

 

Curtis Fox; Auden himself was a terrific reader of his stuff. Never dramatic, but always very measured and precise.

 

W. H. Auden:

Look stranger of this island now,

the leaping light for your delight discovers.

 

Curtis Fox; A generous sampling of his readings is collected in the CD series, “The Voice of The Poet” published by Random House audiobooks. The CD comes with a small book of poems in their print form and an introductory essay about the series editor, J.D. McClatchy. On today’s podcast we’re going to hear a track from that CD, Auden reading one of his greatest poems, “The Shield of Achilles”. First I asked J.D. McClatchy to explain one of Auden’s deepest contradictions. here was a poet who believed in writing poetry about social ills and politics, but who also once famously said that poetry itself makes nothing happen.


J.D. McClatchy: I’m not sure that he entirely believed that poetry makes nothing happen. I think it was something he said at one point, he often changed his mind on things. I think he felt that poetry couldn’t stand up to political dogma, to the chatter of both journalism and history. I think he felt as Wordsworth did that poetry was meant to make, as Wordsworth said, new compositions of feeling. How we view the world, not necessarily what we do in the world, although the later depends on the former.

 

Curtis Fox; So poems can change how we feel, and how we feel can change how we act. Indirectly then, poetry can change the world. Auden wrote ‘The Shield of Achilles’ shortly after World War 2 in the 50s. J.D. says the poem reflects the landscape of that war, which Auden saw first hand.

 

J.D. McClatchy: He joined the army, and was signed to the US strategic bombing survey in Germany. He went to Germany to see what the effects of the horrific American bombing at the campaign at the end of the war had done to Germany.

 

Curtis Fox; But the poem never mentions World War 2 or Germany. It’s subject is taken from Homer, Book 18 from the Iliad. Here in a nutshell is the story. Achille’s mother, Thetis, has gone to Hephaestus, the blacksmith god. She asks him to make a shield that will protect her son in battle at Troy. With Thetis looking over his shoulder, Hephaestus shocks her by decorating the shield with grim images of war and destruction instead of graceful pictures of an ordered, peaceful world. The poem’s about three and a half minutes long, and I’ll have a post-poem chat with J.D. McClatchy. Here’s W. H. Auden reading “The Shield of Achilles”.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Curtis Fox; W.H. Auden reading “The Shield of Achilles”. In a sense this poem really does sound like a product of the early 1950s, with it’s evocation of mass society and faceless totalitarian rule. Going back to the third stanza, he says —

 

W. H. Auden:

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:

 

J.D. McClatchy: This is the world of Orwell’s Big Brother.

 

Curtis Fox: Once again, J.D. McClatchy.


J.D. McClatchy: It’s the world of modern tyranny and totalitarian government. But it is that sense that the history of the 20th century has so brutally betrayed the promise of civilization.

 

Curtis Fox; A few stanzas later, Auden introduces some religious imagery into a crowd execution scene.

 

W. H. Auden:

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.

 

J.D. McClatchy: The scene is a kind of parody of the crucifixion. Because it echoes the crucifixion it also reminds you that not only the 20th century has done this.

 

Curtis Fox; He says that it’s a crowd of ordinary, decent folk allowing this to happen right in front of them.

 

J.D. McClatchy: These are people who do what they’re told, which is one definition of decency but not the best.

 

Curtis Fox; Then what happens in the next stanza still sends a shiver down my spine every time I read it. Here it comes.

 

J.D. McClatchy: Mine too.

 

W. H. Auden:

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.

 

J.D. McClatchy: What causes those shivers is the rhetorical texture of the poem suddenly stands at attentions and beautiful sentences pour out there describing a horrible situation. It makes it as you say all the more horrible, because of the grandeur of the language.


Curtis Fox; A few stanzas later on, the poem describes what could almost be a scene from one of the bombed out German cities that Auden saw right after World War 2.

 

W. H. Auden:

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.

 

J.D. McClatchy: That ragged urchin is the great Achilles himself. That’s the boy who’s mother can’t protect him by having a great shield made for him.

 

Curtis Fox; I never made that connection. So Achilles the great warrior started off, Auden is saying, as a great urchin.

 

J.D. McClatchy: He didn’t start out that way, he’s become that way, because he too is subject to death. The poem is rather dark, and it doesn’t end in any hopeful way. It ends in a clear eyed portrait of what brutality and violence are possible in this life. The thin-lipped armorer,

      

W. H. Auden:

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.

 

J.D. McClatchy: What a difference it would make in this poem if it hadn’t had that last line. She cries out “at what the god had wrought to please her song, the strong iron-hearted man slaying Achilles”. If the poem had ended there, it would be still a very strong and shattering thing, but to put that last line there, “Who would not live long”, bringing everything together; modern, ancient, individual and communal together in one moment where the wave of death wakes everybody up.

 

Curtis Fox; J.D. McClatchy thanks very much.


J.D. McClatchy: Thank you.


Curtis Fox; J.D. McClatchy is the series editor of “The Voice of the Poet”, a CD collection of poets reading their own work put out by Random House audiobooks. Thanks to the Department of English at Yale University for allowing us to use the recording of “The Shield of Achilles”. J.D. McClatchy is also a poet, you can read a handful of his poems and an essay he wrote about Rainer Marie Rilke on our website poetryfoundation.org. Let us know what you think of this program where our motto is:

You should never explain a poem but it always helps none the less

 

Curtis Fox; Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. Thanks to everybody for writing in and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. The theme music used in this program comes the Claudia Quintet. For the Poetry Foundation Podcast, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

J.D. McClatchy on Auden during wartime, and a reading by Auden of "The Shield of Achilles."

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