Treatment of Classical Myths by the Modernist Poets: W. H. Auden’s the Shield of Achilles

Topics: W. H. Auden, Modernism, Achilles Pages: 7 (2551 words) Published: September 4, 2013
[Abstract: The pivotal figures of paleo-modernism in English poetry have consistently expressed a profound fervor for the classical mythic world- a world that is deeply real and vivid to them. The appeal of mythic world to these poets is profound and they have sought poetic inspiration from here. Naturally, the subject of myths is predominantly present in the poetry of the modernists. The aim of this research is to show W. H. Auden’s treatment of classical myths in “The Shield of Achilles” in relation to other modernist poems. Bearing it in mind, we have focused on the mythic characters especially Thetis, her warrior son Achilles and the master blacksmith Hephaestus, and their role and function attributed by Auden in the context of the 20th century. This inquisitive study will show the multidimensional functions of Auden’s exploitation of Greek myths to exhibit several of modern themes/issues- the sense of foiled expectations, the dispassionate side of modern art, the connection (or tension) between past and present, the dire need of a spiritual and moral life for modernists.] Myths and fantasies are dearest to the poets, especially to the ones of the school of modernism. T. S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and W.H. Auden are no exception to it. The modernists have, among other things, lost the sense of possession. They have lost all meanings in life. Futility, emptiness and nothingness can best describe their poetical world. They have been uprooted from their culture and tradition. But, life, if it is to be lived, can never rest on ‘nothing’. Really, culture and tradition make human life worth living and myth is one of the dominant manifestations of culture. In this writing we will attempt to examine how the modernist poet W. H. Auden exploits Greek myths to his purpose of delineating a modern world, and to do so we have chosen his one of the most anthologized poems “The Shield of Achilles.” In “The Shield of Achilles” we encounter two worlds: the classical world and the modern world. Thetis, the goddess mother of Achilles, Hephaestus and Achilles represent the classical world. The new shield made by the god Hephaestus symbolizes a modern world that is afflicted with war, violence and dangerous crimes. Though Thetis is a mythic figure belonging to the Greek mythology, Auden exploits her for his own poetic purpose of delineating a fractured modern world. In the original mythology in Homer’s The Iliad, Thetis is not found to be lamenting for those who would die in the Trojan War. She is found to be much worried about her son’s safety and his premature death- a death that is doomed by God, but here she seems to be worried about the safety of mankind. Auden has transformed Thetis into a different figure that stands for the modern conscience raising its voice against all war and blood shedding. Here Thetis has become the spokeswoman for the poet himself. Her position against the war gives overtone for Auden’s strong stance against all the violence on humanity. The poem is built on a striking contrast between a mythic world, admirable and appealing and a modern world, repulsive and abhorrent. If Auden described a modern world straightforwardly in exclusion of a mythic world, the picture of that world would not seem that much realistic and effective as it is now. Auden, however, has depicted the modern world on the backdrop of a classical world. In the original shield that we find in Homer’s Iliad there are scenes of a world that is wonderful and magnificent, a world- that leaves us stunned with all its cultural patterns. The shield portrays a mighty Greek civilization that is based on industry, mutual love, success, happiness and ethical concerns. Simple pleasure (my emphasis) is the term that describes that golden world. This Homeric world finds its fantastic outlet in John Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” portraying a world of idyllic beauty, country dance and provincial song, and the rites and rituals....
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