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. 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. 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. 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 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, 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.
From The Shield of Achilles by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1955 W. H. Auden, renewed by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.