cover image The Shield of Achilles

The Shield of Achilles

W.H. Auden, edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton Univ, $22.95 (128p) ISBN 978-0-691-21865-6

Auden’s National Book Award–winning 1956 collection is restored to print for the first time in decades in this essential reissue. Perceptively introduced by Jacobs (Breaking Bread with the Dead) and featuring illuminating notes on historical context and Auden’s biography, as well as the poet’s own comments taken from letters and lectures, this volume is arguably the highlight of Auden’s writing during his years in the U.S. The title poem is no less than an attempt to capture Western civilization in verse, masterfully exploring Christianity, empathy, and human connection by writing of Achilles’s brutal, martial world in which hardships were “axioms to him who’d never heard/ Of any world where promises were kept/ Or one could weep because another wept.” Elsewhere, in chiseled, musical stanzas, Auden’s marriage of form and erudition alight on the love “deep below our violences” with an eye on modernity—conflicted, at times barbarous—and its historical underpinnings. These are hymns of “late man, listening through his latter grief,” epigrammatic and wise, witty and humane (“Small crooks flourish in big towns”; “Romance? Not in this weather”). This exquisite document of its century is irrefutable evidence of Auden’s skill and depth of insight. (May)