March 24, 2000
Authority: Dannie Abse's Indictment of Blind Faith in "The
Victim of Aulis"[comment1]
World War II, an entire race of people was decimated as a result of blind
adherence to one charismatic ruler; the holocaust has become emblematic
of the senseless horror of war and the loss of innocent lives. Perhaps
influenced by World War II, the Korean War, and the questioning of complete
adherence to authority, whose seeds were just breaking through the glorious
façade of the 1950's suburban idyll, Dannie Abse wrote "The Victim
of Aulis" in 1951-6. The poem is an accusation against the disastrous
effects of blind obedience, particularly as it is manifested in religion
and war. [comment2]Abse
anchors his critique within the safely distant realm of Greek mythology;
this creates a world with which most readers are familiar and thus transfers
his indictment of modern society into the images of the cultural psyche.
poet borrows a scene from Greek mythology depicting the sacrifice of Agamemnon's
daughter Iphigenia to Artemis at the beginning of the Trojan War, which
serves as the ultimate expression of the intimate intermingling of war
The Greek gods were not only intimately involved in
the action of the Trojan War, they were also the impetus for the war.
Although the overt cause of the war was Paris' abduction of Helen, this
act was the result of quarrelling goddesses. The Trojan prince Paris was
forced to choose the fairest amongst the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and
Athena. Each goddess attempted to sway Paris with offerings, and Aphrodite's
temptation was Helen; [comment4]this leads to the war and the immortal alliances that
overshadow its mortal activities. The story that the poem implicitly addresses
is of the Achaen king Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia. The Achaen
forces have gathered at Aulis before mounting their attack on Troy when
one of Artemis' stags is killed; this, coupled with Agamemnon's boasting
of the act, is why "Artemis is offended" (51). In retaliation, the goddess
imprisons the troops at Aulis by preventing the wind from powering their
fleet. In order to appease the goddess and begin the war, Agamemnon sacrifices
his own daughter Iphigenia as "the child" who will become "the victim
of Aulis." Although Artemis intervenes and makes Iphigenia one of her
priestesses, only the goddess knows that Iphigenia escaped death.
is the most powerful adherent to both the word of god and of war and he
offers the highest tribute to both, his daughter. Although Iphigenia is
the literal "victim of Aulis," her sacrifice alludes to a greater sacrifice;
Aulis is the location where the troops gathered in order to wage war,
and Iphigenia is only the first victim to be taken by the resulting atrocities.
Iphigenia, Abse shows that, as in most historical wars, the real victims
are the innocents, the sacrificed women and children. Abse repeatedly
and exclusively classifies Iphigenia as "the child" in order to reinforce
her purity, and although she is a young woman, she "has not breasts" (62).
role of Artemis as Iphigenia's savior and as the preventor of war augments
the characterization of both Iphigenia's and the impending victims' innocence,
as Artemis is the goddess of virginity, the ultimate symbol of purity.
The poem also shows Iphigenia's complete lack of understanding and involvement
in the fate that awaits her; she repeatedly asks "why father?" and on
her way to death is "playing with colored beads of spray" (44). The questioning
of one man's child becomes the universal cry of innocence as it transcends
into the natural world, becoming "the wind howling, why father? why father?"
(74). "The child! The child!" of line 22 also becomes all children as
the soldiers are inspired to think of their [comment8]"own
daughters/ with clumsy father-pride" (23-4); through this Abse reminds
the reader that all who die in war are someone's child.
Although the men bemoan the fate of Iphigenia and allude
to their own daughters, they also bow to all higher authorities when they
do not attempt to save Iphigenia and attempt to absolve themselves of
all guilt. [comment9]While both the soldiers' passivity on Iphigenia's behest
and their active role in the war could place them in collusion with Agamemnon
and the other captains, they find absolution in their role of selfless
obeyors. They "must obey, being little men" (18) and, consequently, decisive
action must be "[left] to the Captains" (20); in this way the sacrificed
children of war can become "faceless now/ indistinct as the mingling of
voices" (25-6). This transference of responsibility moves up the hierarchical
ladder to the divine as "Agamemnon is in religion" (38) and the troops
are powerless pawns in the hands of the gods: "we only throw the dice
and curse" (11). [comment10]The blaming of the gods for the acts of men in war is
also a theme in the Iliad, which is illuminated by Achilles' comment
to the Trojan king Priam after both men have suffered great losses in
the war: "this is the fate the Gods have spun for mortal men, that we
should live in misery, but they themselves have no sorrows" (24: 525).
By placing the ultimate responsibility for the war and
the resulting murderous actions at the feet of the gods, Abse accuses
not just the religious followers, but the religion itself. The Trojan
War was a divinely inspired expedition, like many other wars and particularly
the holocaust. Abse makes the underlying suggestion that religion is the
cause of brutal sacrifice, not just here with Agamemnon's sacrifice of
Iphigenia and of the others who are sacrificed to act out the will of
the gods, but extending to the Christian mythologies of Abraham and Isaac
and reaching its zenith with Christ. As the ignorant child questions "why
father?" as she trustfully follows her father to death, her soldier equivalent
questions "why Father" as he trustfully follows his divine father.
Dannie. "The Victim of Aulis." White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected
Poems 1948-1988. New York: Persea Books, 1990. 37-39.
Iliad. Trans. Martin Hammond. Middlesex: Penguin, 1987.