‘The Shield of Achilles’ by W.H. Auden presents an episode from Homer’s epic poem “Iliad” innovatively. This poem creates an amalgamation of the classical world with the modern world for depicting the futility of the latter.
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 the mother of Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes in the Trojan War. At her request, Hephaestus, the armor-maker of gods, made armor, and a shield for Achilles. He also engraved images on the shield. In this poem, the poet talks about the images or scenes depicted on the shield by the skillful hands of Hephaestus.
Explore The Shield of Achilles
This poem begins with the making of Achilles’ shield. When Hephaestus was making the shield, Thetis kept a close watch on the process. She wished to see certain features engraved on her son’s shield. However, the armorer depicted something else. He used several bleak and barren scenes depicting the true nature of the modern world. The shield did not contain the conventional patterns found in any armaments of the ancient Greeks. Rather it contained the images sufficiently reflecting the futility of the war-ridden world. In this way, the poet creates several contrasts throughout the poem evoking a sense of irony.
You can read the full poem here.
The title of the poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’ gives a hint to readers concerning the subject matter of the poem. However, the title does not reflect, in a complete sense, the idea of the poet. Here, the poet talks about the images engraved on the shield. What should be there, is not present. Rather, the shield contains the bleak scenes of the modern world. Apart from that, the meaning of the poem deals with the happenings around the poet when he was writing this poem. Besides, the poem contains several references that one had seen in postwar Europe. Here, the shield of Achilles is a canvas on which Auden paints the reality of the modern world.
This ekphrastic poem consists of a total of nine stanzas. Each stanza does not contain a specific line-length or pattern. Along with that, there is not any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. Most of the lines do not rhyme at all. Hence, it is in free verse. However, there are some instances where one can find the use of rhyming. It is important to focus specifically on the structure of the stanzas. The stanzas containing short lines depict what Thetis wished to see on the shield of her son. Whereas the long stanzas create contrast in this poem by introducing several dispassionate scenes of the modern world. Apart from that, the overall poem is composed of a mixed iambic-trochaic meter scheme.
Auden’s poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’ contains an allusion to Homer’s epic poem “Iliad”. In this poem, the poet refers to the shield-making by Hephaestus. While he was working on it, Thetis looked over his shoulder. Apart from that, the poet uses a metaphor in “untamed seas.” Here, the poet compares the sea to a wild creature. There is synecdoche in the phrase “shining metal.” Thereafter, one can find a use of simile in the last line of the first stanza. This stanza does not only contain the mentioned devices but also contain the use of alliteration in the phrase, “His hands had.” In the second stanza, the poet uses a repetition of the word “million”. This repetition is called palilogy.
In the third stanza, the poet uses irony in the line, “Proved by statistics that some cause was just.” Likewise, this poem contains several ironic statements. There is consonance in the phrase, “flickering forge-light.” Thereafter, Auden presents an epigram in the line, “That carries weight and always weighs the same.” Besides, there is a paradox in the line, “And died as men before their bodies died.” Likewise, the line, “That girls are raped, and two boys knife a third,” is paradoxical. In the last stanza, “Iron-hearted” contains metonymy.
Auden’s poem contains several themes such as modernity, futility, war, heroism, death, destruction, and passivity of modern men. Being a postmodern poem, this poem encompasses the theme of modern life after the World Wars. By depicting the engravings on the shield, the poet refers to the hopeless state in the modern world. Death and destruction raged everywhere. Besides, the heartless soldiers and the “unintelligible multitude” standing aimlessly on a bleak landscape presents the theme of war. Thereafter, the shield of Achilles is a Symbol of heroism. However, this poem is not an adulation of heroism or any heroic feat. Rather it is about the hollowness of heroism. Apart from that, the themes of death and destruction are also present in this poem.
Analysis of The Shield of Achilles
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
In the opening stanza of the poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’, 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 the joyless world of the artificial condition of life.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
The sea-goddess says it was under a sky that was lead-colored and oppressive. The modern 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.
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
Thereafter, in the third stanza of ‘The Shield of Achilles’, Thetis notices that just then a voice on a loudspeaker or wireless set announced numerical facts to justify that action was just and desirable. Hearing the message, the columns of troops marched away raising clouds of dust. They marched away from that place. Moreover, they had an enduring belief whose logic brought them somewhere else. Here, the poet refers to a place where they can grieve and express their emotions. However, in the modern world, there is no such place.
She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.
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 honor of a god, or that of men offering any other sacrifice. All that she found on the shining metal, a reference to the shield of Achilles, something else not matching her expectations. There should have been an altar. But instead of such an image, she noticed the image of a selected spot enclosed with barbed wire fences, depicted in the next stanza.
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
Previously the poet has said that after watching the scenes, not up to Thetis’ expectations, she became disheartened. She saw a barbed wire enclosing an “arbitrary spot.” Here, the poet hints at a place arbitrarily chosen or taken away from a person. Moreover, she saw 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.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
In this part of ‘The Shield of Achilles’, Thetis notices that all the people of the imagined 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. Besides, they always looked at someone else’s “weight” or grief despite looking at theirs. They were puny in their thoughts and could not hope for any help. As they knew nobody was coming to help them. What they had caused in the world, was troubling them in return. Thereafter, one day those men lost their baseless pride and died just like others died in the war.
She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.
In the seventh stanza, Thetis 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 men and women dancing together to the tune of music (Moving their sweet limbs/Quick, quick, to music,). But, instead of them, she found a bird flying up to a place of a field overgrown with weeds. Here, the poet uses an interesting metaphor in “a weed-choked field.” It seems as if the field is choking for the overgrown weeds everywhere. Such overgrowth of weeds refers to the fact that humans had become unsympathetic concerning nature.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
In this stanza, 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 sympathized with others in their grief and sorrow. In this way, Auden depicts a harsh yet truthful image of the modern world.
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
In this concluding part of the poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’, the poet says that Hephaestus, the thin-lipped armor maker (Greek) God, walked away lamely, leaving the shield in his work-shop. And Thetis, depicted in ancient art as having “shining breasts”, cried out in dismay. For she knows well that her great son, Achilles, would not live long, having those images on his shield. Moreover, the poet uses the epithets, “Iron-hearted” and “man-slaying” to describe Achilles. However, these epithets rightly apply to modern men, having no feelings for each other and ruthlessly killing others for the sake of nationalism.
Auden composed this poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’ 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. Warplanes of both 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, the 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.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly encompass the themes present in Auden’s poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’.
- Remains by Simon Armitage – In this poem, Armitage, the present poet laureate of the UK, presents his war experiences. This poem is an acerbic one concerning the traumas of war.
- Smile, Smile, Smile by Wilfred Owen – This poem combines the imagery of the marching soldiers, gains from the war, and suffering of the soldiers.
- The Waste Land by S. Eliot – It’s one of the best poems of Eliot. This poem is about the death of culture, and the misery of being learned in a world detached from its roots.
- The Field of Waterloo by Thomas Hardy – This poem describes the battlefield of Waterloo and the suffering of different creatures. It is one of the best-known poems of Hardy.