I will be returning soon to my posts on Augustine’s City of God, but maybe not for another week or so, because I need to devote my full attention to the final edits of my forthcoming critical edition of Auden’s collection The Shield of Achilles — my most recent contribution to Princeton University Press’s Auden Critical Editions series. I will admit to being very excited about this project. Though things may change, below please see my Preface in its current form.
The Shield of Achilles appeared in 1955, which for Auden was right on time: he tended to publish a collection of poems every five years or so, and the previous book, Nones, had appeared in 1951. The poems of Nones indicated the beginnings of a major transition in his work. Through the first half of the 1940s he had written long poems in which he worked through the implications of his newfound Christian faith for politics and history (For the Time Being), for art (The Sea and the Mirror), and for the psyches of people devastated by war and by the various dislocations of modernity (The Age of Anxiety). But in the major poems in Nones Auden began a reckoning with certain themes that, he came to realize, he had neglected: the embodied life that humans share with all other creatures, and the character of genuine human community.
That he spent much of his time in these years living on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, around people whose language he knew imperfectly and whose habits he struggled to share, in a country that reminded him constantly of the complex relationship between Rome’s empire and the great claims of the Christian faith, exercised a powerful influence on the course of his thinking. To Ischia he wrote, in 1948 when he was new there,
How well you correct
Our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see
Things and men in perspective
Underneath your uniform light.
If in Nones Auden inaugurated his new quest to “see / Things and men in perspective,” in The Shield of Achilles he provides a powerful report on the fruits of that quest. It is the boldest and most intellectually assured work of his career, an achievement that has not been sufficiently acknowledged, in large part because its poetic techniques are not easily perceived or assessed. It is the most unified of all Auden’s collections, and indeed — once its intricate principles of organization are grasped — may be seen as the true successor of those long poems of the 1940s.