Lesson 16: W.H. Auden; War Talk, and Expectations

How do we speak and write about things when things are not going the way that we want? Not just little things, like lunch, but big things, like wars. Do we use more rhetoric, or less? Contrasting part of the President’s speech last week on Afghanistan, one that seemed to elicit a Goldilocks response across the spectrum (too hot, too cold), with a poem describing a not dissimilar emotion, we might see something about how metaphors work.

The impossibility of met expectations for something as complex as global politics—or war—begs unique eloquence on the subject of those expectations’ ambiguity. And eloquence on ambiguity, as a task, tends to fall to poets, not politicians.

Because we don’t want cynical leaders; and we want, to a certain extent, simplicity, so we cannot fault Presidents for using language they knows we want to hear: elevated, aspirational. In his speech last week, President Obama he said:

America, we are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes. Thank you, God Bless you and God Bless the United States of America.

And we like this. Yet hearing about receding tides, we longed for more innovative, demanding metaphors. Here is one of our favorites in this genre, from W. H. Auden. This is the opening of “The Shield of Achilles:"

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.


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.

What Auden describes—what we expect to see on the shield vs. what we actually see—is too undiplomatic a contrast for most politicians. Presidents can’t speak as poets do. Why not? Maybe because we would never forgive them.

What we love about this Auden is not only its mythological choice for metaphor, but also its cool contrast between the classical (“marble well-governed cities”) and the close to home (“a million boots in line”).

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