The Challenge of Progress: A Critical Analysis of W.H. Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and ‘The Fall of Rome’

1. Introduction

This paper analyzes the two poems by W.H. Auden: 'The Shield of Achilles' and 'The Fall of Rome'. Both poems talk of the challenges that modern societies face compared to ancient times. In 'The Shield of Achilles', the challenge is how to preserve our values in the face of technological progress and its dehumanizing effects. The poem reflects on the Greek legend of Achilles and how his shield, which was crafted by Hephaestus, depicts a perfect world that is at once beautiful and tragic. The poem suggests that we should not idealize the past, but instead learn from it and strive to create a better future. In 'The Fall of Rome', the challenge is how to prevent the decline of our civilization. The poem describes the fall of Rome as a result of political corruption, moral decadence, and environmental destruction. It warns that we must take action to prevent history from repeating itself.

2. 'The Shield of Achilles'

In "The Shield of Achilles", Auden reflects on the Greek legend of Achilles and how his shield, which was crafted by Hephaestus, depicts a perfect world that is at once beautiful and tragic. The poem suggests that we should not idealize the past, but instead learn from it and strive to create a better future.

The poem begins with a description of the shield:

He hewed him an image out
Of bright gold: two cities full
Of fair women and young men
Filled with all kinds of things
Worth having: one town was
On fire, while round another
Farmers were ploughing or
Harvesting their crops by hand,
Sheep were being herded, houses
were being built… (ll. 1-9)

The shield is a symbol of a perfect world that is at once beautiful and tragic. It is a world where people are busy with their everyday lives, but there is also war and violence. The first city is on fire, while the second city is surrounded by farmers who are working hard to harvest their crops. Even in this perfect world, there is suffering and death. This is symbolized by the figure of Orpheus, who is playing his lyre while Eurydice dies in his arms:

Orpheus sang before them all
His song of love and death,… (ll. 10-11)

The poem goes on to describe how this perfect world is threatened by the modern world:

But in another scene Hephaestus had gouged an uglier gash: here lay powerful engines belching smoke over new buildings… (ll. 12-14) Here men were digging up great lumps of ore… (ll 15-16) Further off were forests where machines were felling trees… (ll 17-18)

The poem suggests that the modern world is destroying the perfect world of the past. This is symbolized by the figure of Heracles, who is trying to destroy the machines:

Heracles was busy destroying
The monstrous engines; but they
Could not be killed because they were
The offspring of immortal
Gods. (ll. 19-22)

The poem concludes with a warning that we should not idealize the past, but instead learn from it and strive to create a better future:

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
When it threatens, sing.
Laugh when it wounds…
Marry, maiden, and give birth,
But do not forget. (ll. 23-26) Remember the words of Achilles: "My heart exists in two places, one here in my breast, the other yonder among the dying…" (ll. 27-28)

3. 'The Fall of Rome'

In "The Fall of Rome", Auden describes the fall of Rome as a result of political corruption, moral decadence, and environmental destruction. It warns that we must take action to prevent history from repeating itself.

The poem begins with a description of the fall of Rome:

The crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. (ll. 1-8)

The poem describes the crowd of people who are walking away from the city after it has been sacked. They are all sighing and seem to be in a state of shock. The poem then goes on to describe the causes of the fall of Rome:

A few cracked heads mended with cold lead,
The arms torn out were replaced by nails;
But no one found an ancient remedy
For the illness that had struck them dumb,
Blindness and deafness and old age… (ll. 9-13) For this disease there is no cure, " said the Roman poets long ago. (ll. 14-15) Corruption and tyranny and lies, Greed for power and for wealth… (ll. 16-17) These things are the root of all evil… (ll 18) And when they have destroyed a civilization, Only fools build it up again. (ll. 19-20)

The poem suggests that the fall of Rome was caused by political corruption, moral decadence, and environmental destruction. It warns that we must take action to prevent history from repeating itself:

Do not build up what you cannot sustain, Do not make idols of your own desires, Lest you be forced to bow down before them… (ll. 21-23) And when they have destroyed a civilization, Only fools build it up again. (ll. 24-25)

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, the poems by W.H. Auden offer a critical analysis of the challenges that modern societies face compared to ancient times. In 'The Shield of Achilles', the challenge is how to preserve our values in the face of technological progress and its dehumanizing effects. The poem suggests that we should not idealize the past, but instead learn from it and strive to create a better future. In 'The Fall of Rome', the challenge is how to prevent the decline of our civilization. The poem describes the fall of Rome as a result of political corruption, moral decadence, and environmental destruction. It warns that we must take action to prevent history from repeating itself.

FAQ

W.H. Auden was inspired to write his poems by the world around him and his own personal experiences.

The poems reflect his views on society and politics by highlighting the problems that he saw in the world and offering solutions to them.

The overall message that he is trying to convey through his poetry is that we need to work together to make the world a better place for everyone.