Saturday, April 3, 2010

"The Shield of Achilles"...from Auden to Tippett

In an essay last month about the nobel-prize winner Jose Saramago's novel, Death With Interruptions, I mentioned Achilles. April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., and the title of this essay refers to W.H. Auden's poem of that name.

For last night's Good Friday service at First Presbyterian (Norfolk), my colleagues and I offered selections from Bryan Kelly's contemporary passion setting, Crucifixion. Kelly weaves together the gospel narrative with recitatives and choruses in the manner of the Bach passions. He adds contemporary twists, however, by setting simple (English) poems by Ann Ridler as chorales. The arias and duets are angular, edgy settings of the Auden poem.

Saramago referenced Amphitrite, one of the daughters of the protean sea nymph, Thetis, who is also mother to the Greek hero, Achilles. Those needing to brush up their mythology could spend an evening with Wolfgang Petersen's sprawling movie, Troy, and be reminded from whence the term "Achilles' heel" comes. In the overstuffed, uneven, star-studded, action-packed epic, Paris (Orlando Bloom) kills Achilles (Brad Pitt) with an arrow shot through his heel.

Back to Auden. The Shield of Achilles refers to the infamous armor Thetis had crafted by Hephaestos (the lame, expelled-from-Olympus forger, rescued by Thetis and her fellow sea nymphs). Auden alternates stanzas where Thetis looks on Hephaestos' handiwork, expecting to see scenes of beauty, prowess, and heroic accomplishment:

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.

Each of these octaves (8-line stanzas) is followed by a sonnet-like scene with ominous undertones of contemporary violence. That Auden--alternately a conscientious objector and member of the resistance--fought against Franco's fascist regime in the Spanish Civil War is but one point of entry. The second half of the first sonnet concludes with this stanza:

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.

As I prepared for last night's service, rereading Auden's verse that is as lyrically accomplished as it is substantively engaging, I thought of his younger contemporary, Christopher Logue. Logue's most famous collection of poetry is a series of modern adaptations of Homer (one of our primary sources for this mythology), called War Music. Rather than returning to the original greek, he started with the most famous English translation of Homer by Chapman (from 1611--also the inspiration for one of Keats' most famous short poems, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer," also discussed in another recent essay below, "Before the melancholy fit shall fall...").

The result is a hybrid of translation and adaptation, with allusions to everything from classicism to WWII. The first volume of his ongoing collection was taken from books 16-19 of Homer's Iliad. Logue's central section is called GBH ("Grievous Bodily Harm" is a contemporary English legal reference).

Early on in the opening chapter Achilles sounds more like Shakespeare:

If you would stay my friend or not
Then speculate which god, or whether God Himself,
Packaged these specious quibbles with my mouth
Your insolence delivers to my face.

Logue's re-workings of battle scenes remind one why literature has always been superior to the stage and screen when it comes to the vividness with which the imagination is engaged:

God blew the javelin straight; and thus
Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.

While several of the battle scenes in Troy are incredibly well conceived and executed, how can a camera capture an image like that last one?

Elsewhere, Logue evokes some of the greatest 20th century poetry to commemorate war:

And as he reined away, he called:
'Do not forsake me, O my seven meadows,
Until I conquer Greece!'
Though all he conquered was six foot of sand.

"Do not forget me quite/O Severn Meadows" refers to a poem (and art song) by the soldier, poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, one of many such artists who memorialized--and became memorials of--the so-called "Great" war, World War I.

As I made that connection I recalled a central scene from a another recent favorite play/movie, The History Boys, by Alan Bennett. In that scene, Hector (the name of the Trojan hero slain by Achilles in Homer, which provokes the revenge of Hector's brother, Paris) teaches one of his pupils a war poem by Thomas Hardy. Drummer Hodge prompts both a lesson in history, reading poetry, and making connections. After the student refers to another WWI poet, Rupert Brooke (colleague of Gurney's), Hector unpacks the poem's significance, starting with the observation this dead soldier has a name: he is remembered.

"So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer. Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name."

This poignant scene continues, and through Hector's exegesis of Hardy we are shown a window into the character's soul. Richard Griffiths was acclaimed for his nuanced portrayal of Hector both on the West End and Broadway runs, and in the film adaptation.

The most acclaimed scene in the movie Troy is surely when Priam confronts Achilles to reclaim the body of his son, Hector. In the movie, Brad Pitt's Achilles sulks and stares while Peter O'Toole's Priam acts circles around him without seeming to do anything at all.

A similar scene occurs near the end of Michael Tippett's second opera, King Priam, where the baritone title character confronts the brash tenor. The stark, brass- and wind-dominated score yields to a chamber music texture of touching vulnerability, as Achilles yields to Priam's plea, as if prescient of his own imminent demise.

That demise is flatly stated as Auden's poem ends with the blunt truth:

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.

Auden wrote elsewhere that "poetry makes nothing happen." He also wrote that all art, by its very nature, is political. In his art, as in Logue's, in Bennett's and Tippett's, there is, moreover, an ever-present affirmation. Tippett's most famous work, A Child of Our Time, is "an impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible." That 1944 oratorio was a response to the rise of Fascism and the pogroms against European Jews. A lifelong pacifist, Tippett's entire output is concerned with the process of reconciliation. The central character of the oratorio sings a deceptively simple sounding wish which could well serve as its author's credo:

I would know my shadow and my light,
So shall I at last be whole.


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