The Triumph of Achilles

Louise Glück

‘The Triumph of Achilles’ depicts the titular hero as he mourns the loss of his beloved companion Patroclus.

Louise Glück

Nationality: American

Louise Glück is an acclaimed contemporary American Poet and essayist.

Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature in 2020.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Grief is the most human feeling of them all

Themes: Death, Immortality, War

Speaker: A silent observer of Achilles as he grieves for his loved one

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'The Triumph of Achilles' is a beautifully rendered portrayal of loss, friendship and human experience.

Louise Glück’s ‘The Triumph of Achilles‘ is a retelling of some of the most emotive scenes in Homer’s Iliad. It is primarily concerned with the close relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, both of whom died during the Trojan War. The poem explores the power imbalance in their relationship, as well as pondering what it means to be human in the face of suffering and death.


The Triumph of Achilles‘ subverts the readers’ expectations of heroism and what it means to be divine.

The poem begins with the surprising declaration that it is Patroclus’ story rather than that of the more famous Achilles, thus establishing Glück’s desire to redefine this iconic story. Initially, the poem details the similarities between the two men before highlighting how they differ, largely because they do not equal in the relationship. As the poem draws towards its conclusion, Glück describes Achilles’ grief for the death of Patroclus, paying particular attention to the vulnerability of the famous warrior.


The poem’s two central characters are both taken from Homer’s Iliad, in which the united Greek forces eventually succeed in invading the city of Troy after Helen of Sparta had left her husband for the Trojan prince, Paris. In a period of rage, Achilles refuses to fight, leading Patroclus to take his armor and imitate him so as to inspire the Greek soldiers. While doing so, Patroclus is killed, and Achilles is inconsolable.

Glück’s ‘The Triumph of Achilles‘ is the title poem of her 1985 collection and is now regarded as one of her finest works. She has won numerous literary awards in her long career, and her work is regularly inspired by ancient mythology. In 2020, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

In the story of Patroclus

no one survives, not even Achilles

who was nearly a god.

Patroclus resembled him; they wore

the same armor.

The poem begins by immediately subverting the traditional dynamic between Achilles and Patroclus by stating that it is the latter whose story is being told. This is quickly followed by the hyperbolic claim that “no one survives,” which emphasizes the scale of the suffering that surrounded the two men. The poet could be implying that their story must have been especially emotive to stand out amidst the violence of the Trojan War.

The poet continues to elevate Patroclus by suggesting he resembled the demigod, Achilles. Glück plays upon the story of Patroclus imitating Achilles by wearing his armor in order to celebrate him; he must have been physically impressive in his own right if he were to convince anyone that he was the great Achilles. Curiously, the similarity is noted when Patroclus dons the armor of Achilles, emphasizing the fact the latter was known first and foremost as a warrior.

Stanza Two

Always in these friendships


the one who has been abandoned.

Having drawn similarities between the two men, the poet sets about juxtaposing them in the second stanza. Glück views their relationship as an archetypal one in which one party always has more power than the other, whether it be financial, physical, or social. However, she then casts doubt on the validity of their story by reminding the reader that legends are only passed on by those who survive, which is rarely those who feature most prominently in the legends themselves.

The use of the verb “abandoned” undermines the heroic associations of men like Achilles by suggesting that dying in apparently glorious circumstances can, in fact, be cowardly; the brave option may well be to live on and face the consequences of one’s actions.

Stanzas Three and Four

What were the Greek ships on fire

compared to this loss?


the part that was mortal.

The third stanza is a single rhetorical question, possibly evidencing the poet’s aforementioned doubts about the validity of the story. It also serves to both undermine and elevate the men’s relationship. On the one hand, their plight cannot possibly match up to the thousands of other affected lives in the war. However, such large-scale suffering is difficult to relate to on a personal level, and thus the stanza also serves to heighten the tragedy of Achilles and Patroclus, as their individual pain and anguish are easier for readers to sympathize with.

The final stanza focuses on the human part of the godlike Achilles, which Glück believes to be his mortality and his resultant sensitivity to the passing of others. The privacy of the setting, inside his tent as opposed to out on the battlefield, suggests that this version of the epic hero is the truest. Rather than the great warrior in gleaming armor, Glück portrays him as a grieving man devoid of glory or bravado.


What is the structure of ‘The Triumph of Achilles?’

The poem is written in free verse over four stanzas. The lack of any overarching structure could reflect the fact that Glück has effectively reconstructed an existing story. The unpredictable nature of the poem’s structure, therefore, mirrors the fact that her iteration of these characters may not resemble the way they have been portrayed previously.

Who was Patroclus?

Patroclus was a character in Homer’s Iliad, in which he is portrayed as a childhood friend of Achilles, and the two men are shown to be very close. There is no explicit reference to men having a sexual relationship, but scholars have found implicit ones. Achilles’ grief at his companion’s death leads him to kill Hector, the prince of Troy.

What is the meaning of ‘The Triumph of Achilles?’

The poem does not offer a single, definitive meaning but rather invites the reader to question different aspects of the poem and their own lives. Glück encourages them to question the validity of the story as well as the dynamics of their own friendships. Finally, the poem implies that the human side of Achilles, while less unique than his godly side, is the most important part of his nature.

What happened to Achilles?

Driven to fury after Patroclus’ death, Achilles challenges and kills the Trojan prince Hector in revenge. He is eventually killed after Hector’s brother, Paris, fires an arrow that strikes Achilles in the heel, which, if the myth is to be believed, is the only part of his body that is vulnerable to attack.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Triumph of Achilles‘ might want to explore other Louise Glück poems. For example:

  • Circe’s Power‘ – Another of Glück’s poems that was inspired by Greek mythology.
  • October‘ – This poem brilliantly explores the changing of the seasons in Autumn.

Some other poems that may be of interest include:

Poetry+ Review Corner

The Triumph of Achilles

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Louise Glück

The title poem from her celebrated 1985 collection, 'The Triumph of Achilles,' is one of the poet's finest works and undoubtedly contributed to her 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. It demonstrates her typical interest in Greek mythology as well as her sensitivity to states of extreme emotional turmoil.
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20th Century

While the poem was first published in 1985, its subject matter is drawn from antiquity, and the poem is preoccupied with that historical context even as it makes broader comments on the experience of being human.
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The poet is American, but the subject matter of this poem is concerned with modern-day Greece and Turkey, where the Trojan War took place. While many of the poem's themes are universal, it would be an overstatement to suggest this poem is especially pertinent to America.
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In spite of the poem's title, there is no triumph to be had in the poem. Instead, it is concerned with death, both that of Achilles' companion Patroclus but also of the persona Achilles had before. He was previously thought to be nothing but a fearless warrior but is then shown as a grieving man like any other.
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One of the interesting parallels in the poem is between the mortal and immortal participants in the Trojan War. Achilles initially appears to occupy a middle ground between the two, but ultimately, his human expressions of grief and loss signify that he is mortal and, thus, not a god.
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Set amidst one of the most iconic conflicts in human history, the poem emphasises how war can humble even the mightiest warriors. Nobody, not even the godlike Achilles, can protect the ones he loved in war, and even he cannot overcome grief.
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The poem explores this theme in two primary ways. Firstly, it suggests that Achilles has been abandoned by his companion, Patroclus, when he died and left Achilles alone in the world. However, the only reason Patroclus fought and died was because Achilles would not, thus implying it was Achilles who abandoned the cause.
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This is one of the finest depictions of grief in a poem. Crucially, the poet focuses on the universality of grief; it affects everyone at some point in their lives, no matter how powerful they may ordinarily be. Grief is presented as a humbling force capable of bringing the godlike warrior Achilles to his knees.
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Loving Someone You Can't Have

Whatever the nature of Achilles and Patroclus' relationship, it is beyond doubt that they loved one another very much, and the death of the latter breaks Achilles' heart. Being the warrior that he was, Achilles channels this loss into battle and violence.
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Perhaps surprisingly, much of the poem's focus is directed toward the nature of the friendship between the two men rather than the things that mark them out as different from other people. The imbalance of their relationship is shown to be reminiscent of human friendships more broadly.
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The poem deconstructs the reader's expectations of heroism by showing Achilles at his most vulnerable. Rather than depict him on the battlefield where he resembled a god, he is shown grieving for his companion. This subversion of the expectations of heroism forces the reader to contemplate what a hero is more broadly.
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The poem takes great care to emphasize how, in spite of his apparent divinity, Achilles' grief is what marks him out as human. Unlike the gods who will live forever, Achilles is mortal and thus sensitive to the finite nature of human life. It is both what makes life precious and painful.
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The poem presents the weight of Achilles' loss as comparable to the burning of dozens of Greek ships, presumably with men aboard. This is just one way in which the poet captures the all-consuming nature of loss; it feels as if nobody has ever experienced it in the same way. This is, naturally, ironic as loss is one of the few emotions that everybody will feel at some point in their lives.
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Free Verse

The use of free verse affords the poem a sense of fluidity and unpredictability. This could reflect Achilles' unstable state of mind after Patroclus' death when nobody was sure how he would react. It could also imply that, without his loved one, his life is without structure or purpose.
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There are few examples of mourning and loss in literature that are as powerful as Achilles' reaction to the death of Patroclus in The Iliad. The poet here is able to make this ancient story appear fresh and new by focusing on the personal nature of their relationship, allowing the reader to draw parallels to their own lives.
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Joe Santamaria Poetry Expert
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a Masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.

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