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The Well Read Poem

May 17, 2021

Welcome to Season 3 of The Well Read Poem podcast. In this third season we will explore six lyric poems by the great English modernist W. H. Auden. The study of Auden’s poetry is in many respects a study of the 20th Century itself, and of its religious, philosophical, and political concerns. 

Auden was one of the great chroniclers of the so-called “Age of Anxiety,” a term he coined, and a brilliant and sympathetic analyst of modern man’s fears and hopes, beliefs and unbeliefs. Poem begins at timestamp 3:15.

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.


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.

From The Shield of Achilles by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1955 W. H. Auden, renewed by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Reproduced for educational purposes only.