W.H. Auden, in the poem, The Shield of Achilles, makes an imaginary description of what Thetis noticed on the shield of her son. According to Greek mythology, Thetis was a sea-goddess. She was mother of Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes in the Trojan War. At her request, Hephaestus, the armour-maker of gods, made an armour, and a shield for Achilles. He also engraved images on the shield.
Auden has composed this poem in 1952, when the Western democracies led by America and the Communist countries led by the U.S.S.R were engaged in a dangerous cold war. War planes of both the sides, with atomic bombs, continued flying in the sky over central Europe, all the twenty-four hours for fear of a sudden attack from either side. When Auden composed this poem, war in Korea was in full swing. Being materialistic, the Western culture is dry and artificial. Evidently, here Auden satires the modern warlike world, its culture, and its dangerous situation. In the poem, the poet has in fact represented “a vision of modern inhumanity” stated with considerable directness and force.
The Shield of Achilles Analysis
In the opening stanza of the poem, which can be read in full here, Thetis, one of the sea deities, according to Greek mythology, is shown looking over Hephaestus’s shoulder at the shield of Achilles he is engraving images on. She expected he had engraved traditional images of ancient Greece, such as vineyards, olive woods, marble places, peaceful cities, sailed ships on wine-dark seas, etc. But she was surprised to see that he had not engraved any traditional images on it. He had engraved, instead, the image of joyless world of artificial condition of life.
The sea-goddess says it was under a sky which was lead-coloured and oppressive. The joy world had a plain which was featureless, naked and sunburnt. It had neither a blade of grass nor any sign of human locality. Yet at one place, she says, there stood together a million soldiers in uniforms and boots. Their faces were expressionless. They seemed to be waiting for some military signals.
Then she notices that just then a voice on a loud speaker or wireless set announced numerical facts to justify that an action was just and desirable. Hearing the message, the columns of troops marched away raising clouds of dust.
Then Thetis turned her eyes from that image and looked for images of religious rites, such as that of young cows decked with white flower garlands, that of men pouring forth wine in honour of a god, or that of men offering any other sacrifice. But instead of such images, she noticed the image of a selected spot enclosed with barbed wire fences.
Wherein she sees that there were bored officials and soldiers on guard. There was also a crowd of ordinary people. They watched the carrying of three pale men to the three posts driven into the ground and the binding of those men to the posts.
In this part, Thetis notices that all the people of the imaged world were in the power of their despotic rulers. Their degradation was the worst possible in the situation. They had lost their self-respect as citizens. She then turned her eyes to look for an image of athletes taking part in games.
Besides, in the same image, she also looked for an image of merry man and women dancing together to the tune of music (Moving their sweet limbs/Quick, quick, to music,). But, instead of them, she also found out a bird flying up to a place of a field overgrown with weeds.
Here, the poet says that in that empty field she (Thetis) also saw a mischievous boy (urchin) dressed in ragged clothes. She also noticed a bird flying up to a place of safety, to save itself from his well-aimed stone. The cruel boy belonged to the world in which girls are raped and two boys stab a third. He had never heard of any ancient, noble, world in which promises were kept and people sympathised with others in their grief and sorrow.
In this concluding part of the poem, the poet says that Hephaestus, the thin-lipped armour maker (Greek) God, walked away lamely, leaving the shield in his work-shop. And bright Thetis cried out in dismay. For she knows well that her great son, Achilles, would not live long, having those images on his shield.