Shields and Urns and Beauty and Misery: What Wonders Were the Greeks

stephen_fry I want to say it was Stephen Fry who argued that John Keats might have gone on to become the next William Shakespeare had he lived a bit longer, though it may have in fact have been Christopher Hitchens.  It’s odd not knowing the origin of that quote, because I get those two mixed up rarely—then again, the accent and a general contempt for belief in any sort of divine being are traits common to both these men, so I’ll cut myself some slack.  It is an interesting statement when taken from afar, because at first I’m willing to agree with it.  Upon reflection, however, I feel that this is in fact a real disservice to John Keats as a poet, for while Shakespeare is a standard that I think many writers should aspire to (or at least would appreciate as a lovely comparison), I think Keats as a writer managed in his own way to attain his own identity.730052102

Speaking of which, as of late, that idea has begun to become more and more complicated.  It may be just part of the student complex, but I’ve blossomed in the academic setting because the world has provided me with a sense of structure, organization, and purpose.  School has given my life direction which in turn provided me with the confidence to begin writing again, or at least push the writing I was doing in a more productive route.  I’ve now spent the last six years working and writing, and with a recent acceptance for a publication I’ve gotten to the point I don’t flinch at admitting I’m a writer.  School and regularly writing for this website as well as my own has given me an identity…and it’s about to be over, as I transition from graduating to starting something new.

Since this is my last essay for this organization, I struggled to figure out what I was going to actually write next.  Since it’s the last essay, I felt I should end with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner since that was what my first essay for this site was about, but honestly that felt a bit kitsch and I hate sentimentality.  The worst part about transitions is the way ritual so alters our reality, and rather than just pushing forward we have to stop and let the end totally consume us so that we can achieve some kind of closure and process that we’ve done something with all this time.

Don’t get me wrong, we should enjoy and relish in our achievements, but I’d rather have this last post honestly say something than be a long drawn-out goodbye.

W.H. Auden is a poet that I learned about through Christopher Hitchens, for he is cited regularly throughout Hitchens’ memoir 7345631Hitch-22 (the index lists him on 16 pages, I counted), his epigrams appear in numerous essays, and he was the focus of Hitchens’ entire article The Long Littleness of Life* which was published in the New York Review of Books and my copy of Unacknowledged Legislation: writers in the public sphere which I’ll be reading as soon as I finish this essay.  I trust Hitchens to never disappoint (unless we’re talking about whether women are funny or not, but that’s another essay), and so when I began reading Auden here and there I was always floored.  The man’s ability with language is everything one should want in a poet, and given the fact he was a postmodernist he was right up my alley.  The Vintage Paperback Press W.H. Auden: Collected Poems remains on permanent reserve in my personal library.

My reader may ask what a postmodernist has to do with the Romantics; slow down, I’m getting to it. I like to talk and hear my own voice as I write and I’m also a big fan of lead-ins, don’t forget.  Thinking of Stephen Fry, which might actually have been Christopher Hitchens, speaking about John Keats made me think of Auden because both Keats and Auden both have written poems involving Greek reliquary.

Now the reader of this site is most likely a seasoned Romanticist and so there isn’t too much introduction needed for Keats’ Ode on a ode_on_a_grecian_urn_by_evanmurray-d3bb8g3Grecian Urn.  The speaker is describing two scenes depicted on a Grecian urn, a.k.a. a pot or vase if you’re that guy, one of which is a ritual sacrifice and the other is of a young man pursuing his lover. Before you ask, it’s a girl.  I know they’re Greeks and the Greeks were…anyway, the point is the viewer of the pot, vase, whatever, is observing the scenes and musing on the nature of art.

The second stanza offers the speaker’s thoughts of the scene as he begins to develop the idea of harmony, beauty, and truth:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,

       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; 5415656_f520

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

 The “unheard” pipes in this line reminds me personally of the Platonic ideals, those figures and shapes that are meant to exist outside of time and space (as we know it, Dr. Hawking) and Keats’ speaker crafts this almost sublime moment in which art and beauty and truth attains the only form of recognizable immortality I have ever read and believed in my life.  Art is supposed to be (when it’s done right) the space in which mankind attains some form of timelessness.  Whether it’s for beauty or grotesqueness is something I’ll explore a bit later, but for now I’m working with the idea that Keats’ speaker in this poem is attempting to reach the sentiment Alvy Singer expresses in the film Annie Hall:

“You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”

Speaking as the shlub that I am, I can attest to this statement, but I’m not the focus here.  Keats, as I’ve written before, died at age 25 and so the concept of immortality was a topic the young man could speak with more potency than I can at the precious age of 27.  The idea of life and mortality in general was a topic Keats often archaicBFexekiasachillesdiscussed, and while part of that may have been the fact that he was a physician, the far more likely inspiration was his own precious time.

The urn, like all art, becomes a sight in which his speaker is able to explore this immortality.  The lovers on the urn never age, and while it is tragic that the young man will never catch his girl and at the very least give her a kiss, their love achieves a kind of ideal state, for it is endless.  Their love exists, in a pure and precious moment, for eternity.

Unless of course you read the last stanza and begin the discourse:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 800px-Grecian-george

         When old age shall this generation waste,

                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


The question that always emerges is whether or not this poem ends on a happy note, for yes the love and beauty and festival is never-ending, but still the speaker speaks of “waste,” “woe,” and “Cold Pastoral,” all of which suggests some kind of bitterness on his part.  Does the urn really give people the idea that can understood in the equation “beauty = truth” and vice versa, or does it in fact mock the state of man, leaving him feeling hollow?

On this I have no answer to the reader because ultimately it is up to them to decide whether they believe this poem to be a bleak assessment about the cold nature of art.  I would caution them that there are other works that leave the reader with a far more bleak assessment of reality.

Which leads me to Mr. Auden.058343-c3eb8ca6-cf40-11e3-b2b0-0ba1217f0fd7

The Shield of Achilles was originally published in 1952, and like many postmodern poems, it speaks of an endless darkness of the condition of mankind and ultimately rejects previous generations’ understanding of beauty.  The poem is inspired by a passage in Book 18 in Homer’s The Iliad in which Hephaestus, the blacksmith of Olympus and the ugliest god who somehow managed to get Aphrodite to marry him (I’m told he was a really funny dude) made for the mother of Achilles the Greek warrior and “hero” of the epic war poem a shield of intricate detail.  I’ve included some images of it here that many artists have read and produced, and as you can see the reproduction of it in the movie Troy was simplified to say the least.  Then again, they had seasoned British and Scottish actors playing Greeks so I suppose the shield is probably one the smaller offenses of that film.

AchillesShield01The shield is described in painful detail, as anyone who’s suffered through Homer and lived to tell about it will testify, but that detail ultimately paid off for artists have been able to recreate the shield in drawings and sculpture and study of the shield’s levels attest to the fact that the shield through a careful ekphrastic approach (describing something in such detail that a rendering can be made) Homer is able to show a microcosm of human civilization starting with the sun and planets in the middle, to the various scenes of human life.

This would seem to be similar to Keats’ poem; however, Auden’s poem subverts the beauty of the original description by Homer into something more concerning:

    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 wilderness124360

       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 justTheShieldOfAchilles

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.

Auden describes Achilles’s mother Thetis, a sea nymph and one of many of Zeus’s sexual liaisons, in the original scene observing Hephaestus crafting the shield, but Auden subverts the original beauty described in the classical work, and instead creates a scene of Post-World War horror and morbidity.  Rather than portraying the beauty of the natural world, or party-goers enjoying festivities, or even herds of livestock, the reader is greeted with an “artificial wilderness.”  Auden is careful to use this last phrase for ultimately it is the phrase that detaches the reader and makes them uncomfortable before he continues.  Thetis will continually look over the smith’s shoulder and with each new scene becomes steadily more and more disturbed.

     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.LEG01 - 20021204 - LEGNICA, POLAND: Undated recent picture of a copper foundry in Legnica. EPA PHOTO / PIOTR KRZYZANNOWSKY


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

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1937
by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1937

   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,a000786

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.

I’ve more or less quoted the entire poem here, but simply so the reader can get an idea of why this poem remains so powerful when set against both Homer’s original poem, but also when set against Keats’.  Both poets employ the imagery of Classical antiquity, but ultimately their approach serves entirely different ends.  Auden is a postmodernist and that becomes painfully clear as the reader Thetis bears the gifts of Hephaestus to her sonobserves the scenes of horror, war, rape, and senseless moral depravity, but more importantly as they observe the “artificial landscape” in which the figures of this shield exist.  The conflict is not only because there is horror and death, but because these human beings have become detached from the natural order of existence.

Looking at these two poems side by side, it isn’t just an effort to understand how Postmodernism is significantly different from Romanticism.  It’s an effort to understand how the images engraved or painted have the capacity to inspire artists, and what was it about the Greeks that had this lasting influence?  Keats did not study at a university where knowledge of Greek and Latin wasn’t simply useful, it was a necessity.  Still, he was able, in his own unique (and non-Shakespearean) way, to capture his personal impression and that impression has lived past the man.  Auden, in his own miserable AchillesShieldFlaxmannway, managed to recreate one of the most powerful images in Western Civilization, revealing both the new reality of man’s condition while looking forward to the future.

Both of these poets looked back to the Greeks in order to understand their own moment, but also the future.  This made me remember The Greeks by H.D.F. Kitto, specifically the first line of the introduction to his small book.  He says:

The reader is asked, for the moment, to accept this as a reasonable statement of fact, that in a part of the world that had for centuries been civilized, and quite highly civilized, there gradually emerged a people, not very numerous, not very powerful, not very well organized, who had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for. (7).

My high school English teacher instilled a similar lesson in me.  One of her lessons which remains on permanent file in my Mind Palace is the idea that ultimately every story in Western Civilization can be boiled down into The Odyssey or any of the other Greek Myths.  Study has led me to believe that there are other tales that have Keats_urninfluenced narrative structures over time, but this lesson still seems important as I read more and more and observe Western writers use the Greeks, whether it be their imagery, their myth, their language, their characters, etc., to capture some moment that surpasses contemporary times and summons the idea of eternity.

Hitchens and Fry might have missed Shakespeare for the Greeks…or the trees…or however that metaphor works.

I recognize in the Ode on a Grecian Urn the real Romantic impulse, for while there is a kind of sublime power found within the immortality of art, there is also a recognition of natural wonder.  Life is about action, and while ideas and ideals can be powerful, if they exist only in a stasis then they are ultimately meaningless.  Art is a means, not of conquering death, but overcoming the finality of it.  Human beings will create and die, but it is the first action that shall live on, for even if the creator is destroyed the art lingers on and so new men and women may come to know the human impulse, the human desire, and the capacity for love and mirth by observing art.  By living in the world, and recognizing the world in art, the capacity for empathy is established.





*Writer’s Note*

After reading the article I realized that The Long Littleness of Life was not in fact about W.H. Auden only, but also about his long time partner Christopher Isherwood.  I admit to great shame that I know nothing about this author.

What an odd and unfortunate statement to end a lovely period writing for this site.


**Writer’s Note**

I’ve cited Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn from, and Auden’s The Sheild of Achilles from below in case you’re interested in reading the entire work.


Ode on a Grecian Urn:


The Shield of Achilles

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