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June 13, 2016


He looked in all His wisdom from the throne
Down on that humble boy who kept the sheep,
And sent a dove; the dove returned alone:
Youth liked the music, but soon fell asleep.

But He had planned such future for the youth:
Surely, His duty now was to compel.
For later he would come to love the truth,
And own his gratitude. His eagle fell.

It did not work. His conversation bored
The boy who yawned and whistled and made faces,
And wriggled free from fatherly embraces;

But with the eagle he was always willing
To go where it suggested, and adored
And learnt from it so many ways of killing.

W.H. Auden, 1939

COMMETARY: The year before W.H. Auden wrote this poem he visited China, then in the midst of the Sino Japanese War. The year before that he had been in Spain during its Civil War. Possessing great physical courage, he visited the front lines and the bombed out slums and wrote about his experiences in both journalism and poetry. Though he had been a Marxist before his trips, the senselessness and inhumanity of the violence that he experienced turned him away, temporarily, from any formal ideology. Rather than a romantic struggle for “truth” or the rightness of a cause, war, Auden wrote “is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it and killing a few old women….War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth.”

This sonnet, which Auden revised and unrevised many times during his lifetime, and which was originally published in In Time of War can be read as a half cynical parable of the relationship between ideology and violence. In the original Ganymede myth Zeus spirits the young and handsome Ganymede up to heaven in the guise of an eagle to be his companion and cup-bearer. In this poem Zeus, it would seem, stands for authority and ideology, the “throne” that plans the youth’s future and wishes to “compel” the young man towards duty. Ironically it is not through conversation and truth that he compels Ganymede but through the boy’s thoughtless adoration of “the eagle,” which, it might be inferred, stands simple and innocent and boyish forms of violence which seduce him to darker forms of violence.

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