Summary of The Shield of Achilles
The Shield of Achilles is a wonderful poem. It is the title poem of the 1955 volume of poems entitled The Shield of Achilles. This is a very late poem in in the career of Wystan Hugh Auden. He is remembered as one of the greatest of 20th century American poets. Even long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden was involved in highlighting various loopholes in the world’s political systems that produced flaws in any nation’s social apparatus as well as economic paraphernalia. The shield of Achilles is a famous image in Homer’s Iliad. The shield shows a world of farming, religious ritual, and ordinary life that is quite different from the world of warfare that takes on so much of Homer’s epic. The shield reassures us that there is more to ancient life than the Trojan War and its massacres and horrors.
Auden wrote this poem, The Shield of Achilles, in 1952, when Western democracies led by America and Communist countries led by the U.S.S.R. waged a dangerous cold war. Warplanes on both sides, with atomic bombs, continued to fly over Central Europe in the sky, all twenty-four hours in fear of a sudden attack on either side. When this poem was written by the poet, the Korean war was in full swing.
Being materialistic, Western culture is both dry and artificial. Here, of course, Auden satisfies the modern warlike world, its culture, and its dangerous situation. In fact, in the poem, the poet represented “a vision of modern inhumanity.
Auden, in the poem, 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 armour, and a shield for Achilles. He also engraved images on the shield — Vines and olive trees, / Marble well-governed cities / And ships upon untamed seas. Unfortunately, these images do not exist on the shield she views. Here, in contrast to ancient times, war is depicted as total and wholly dehumanizing. It invades every aspect of life, leaving no part of the world untouched. Instead of vineyards and olive trees on this shield, as existed in ancient times, there is only a bare, brown plain entirely devoid of life. Instead of the joy of religious ritual, the woman sees only barbed wire and “ordinary” people viewing an execution. Instead of athletes at games and people dancing, she sees images of rape and two boys stabbing a third. These contrasts with the original shield are jarring.
The reality, says Auden, is that in the modern world, warfare and ordinary life cannot exist side by side as they once could. Modern warfare is contrasted to ancient warfare and comes up short, for it is too brutal. In the last stanza, the poet laments the fact that the modern shield shows a scene so grim. We find out now that Thetis, Achilles’ mother, is the “she” who throughout the poem has been looking for the civilized life that balances war. Not seeing it, she “cries out in dismay”.
Auden was, as a poet, far more copious and varied than Eliot and far more uneven. He tried to interpret the times, to diagnose the ills of society and deal with intellectual and moral problems of public concern although his poetry is sometimes bewildering. If the poems, taken individually, are often obscure—but they create, when taken together, a meaningful poetic cosmos with symbolic landscapes and mythical characters and situations.
The Shield of Achilles thus explores the complex relationship between art and war, the past and the present, and the ethical problems that the representation of violence for aesthetic purposes entail.
This poem is divided into three parts and each part contains three stanzas. This there are nine stanzas in all. In the first two parts, the first stanza is in short lines, incantatory and sing-song with frequent Homeric echoes; the next two stanzas are in longer lines, Iambic pentameter. In the third, there is a slight difference. There is only one stanza, the second stanza, in Iambic Pentameter, the third stanza with which the lyric closes, again with incantatory and sing-song with Homeric echoes.
“The Shield of Achilles” provides a chilling confrontation between love and war. Written in 1952, it was included in his volume of poetry of the same name, which was published in 1955. The volume won the National Book Award in 1956. It is written in alternating seven-line stanzas of rime royal (ABABBCC) and eight-line stanzas in a ballad format (ABCBDEFE).
The contents of the poem derive from Homer’s Iliad, an ancient epic poem concerning a key part of the Trojan War. A lot has happened by this point. In book 18, the goddess Thetis, the mother of Achilles, asks the god Hephaestos (Latinized as Hephaestus) to create a shield for son so he can triumph in the war against Troy.
Achilles’ earlier shield was taken by Hector after he killed Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, who had taken the armour into battle thinking that seeing this armour would scare the Trojans (Achilles had stayed out of the fight over a dispute with Agamemnon about a woman). Homer goes into great detail describing the shield that Hephaestos
makes; it contains a veritable history of the world in its scenes of pastoral calm, marriage, war, the cosmos, art, and nature.
The poem begins Thetis looking over the armourer’s shoulder with disappointment. In each of her three stanzas, employing the repetition “She looked over his shoulder” in the first line, she is hoping to see images of civilization, joy, piety, and peaceful employment of athletic and musical arts. She loves her son and is thinking ahead to what he should be fighting for. But instead, she sees images of irrationality, war, wilderness, immorality, injustice, and punishment. The contrast between what Thetis expects and what Hephaestos delivers, what Thetis desires and what the armourer thinks appropriate for Achilles, is stark. The pattern of hope and disappointment occurs all three times, followed by the concluding stanza wrapping up the point: after all, Achilles is doomed to live a short but heroic warrior’s life. Achilles, like people in general, can try to live average but boring lives instead, but Achilles has chosen heroism, and his mother is dismayed.
Critic Scott Horton argues that the poem has contemporary resonance for Auden and his audience, reflecting a warning about the Cold War and the authoritarian warmongering of the 1950s: “Auden is not portraying the tragedies of the last war as such. He is warning of a world to come in which totalitarian societies dominate and the worth and dignity of the individual human being are lost. He warns those who stand by, decent though they may seemingly be, and say nothing.” This perspective is supported by anachronistic images on the shield. Thetis sees a scene that seems more
like one from the Second World War: barbed wire around a military base. Modern war engages “millions” and spreads propaganda through “statistics.”
Another allusion on the military base concerns the three people punished. A crowd watches from a distance as three figures are brought forth and bound to three posts in the ground. This scene alludes to the Crucifixion of Jesus between two others, as though the three posts are crosses, and it makes the horrors of war seem more universal. Horton writes, “the anonymous image also displaces the greater spiritual
significance of the Christian sacrifice, suggesting that in the modern world such sacrifice has lost its ultimate meaning and that the victims, Christ, in particular, have become nameless and insignificant.” Poet Anthony Hecht has noted that the executed men were not martyrs, just victims. One also might see in this image an allusion to the Jews and others killed in Nazi concentration camps.
When Hephaestos hobbles away (in myth he is lame) without comment, the shield is his only statement. He put a mirror up to reality and reproduced it on the “shining metal.” In contrast, Thetis’ “shining breasts” reflect her motherly love, less with reality than with hope. Auden once said, “A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the virtues of beauty, order, economy, and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a horror.” As much as we might strive for the virtues, reality- whether presented by Hephaestos, Homer, or Auden—shows us a different, more distressing world.
W. H. Auden was a mercurial poet, frustrating and fascinating for his vibrant juxtaposition of the banal and poignant in his challenging poetry. His influences were legion, stemming from specific political issues such as warfare and class to more personal concepts such as Auden’s constantly changing relationship with Christianity and his own homosexuality. One of the most powerful of the thematic strains that runs throughout Auden’s work is the theme of warfare, especially in its relation to Auden’s moral ambiguity and sometimes irreconcilable views on whether one should or should not engage in conflict. Perhaps the most interesting and relevant of the poems arising from Auden’s interest and horror at the wages of war is “The Shield of Achilles,” a work that paints a hideous portrait of modern life characterized by inevitability and martial horror and set amidst the classical lyricism and vitality of the Iliad of Homer.
First published in 1953 and later included in the eponymous anthology The Shield of Achilles in 1955, the poem is constructed with alternating stanzas depicting the construction of Achilles’ shield and a cruel, nameless war waged in modern times, with both strands of the poem ending tragically. As the poem develops, Hephaestus creates a shield adorned with unexpectedly banal and barren images, and the war continues on for the hapless inhabitants of the modern world. In “The Shield of Achilles,” Auden juxtaposes the classical imagery of Hephaestus’s construction of the eponymous shield with brutal modern imagery to illustrate anxiously
the meaninglessness of modern life, the warfare engendered by it, and the cruel social realities that lie behind both.
Auden’s poem is replete with images of the absence of hope and meaning in modern life, and these images are made all the more poignant for their juxtaposition with the vibrance of the classical imagery of the Iliad. The world Auden describes in “The Shield of Achilles” is a horrific one, one bereft of inner meaning and whose only catalyst is the posturing of figures of authority. The environment is, as Auden describes, a “plain without a feature, bare and brown, / No blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood, / Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down” (9-11).
A featureless expanse physically and metaphorically, it is an environment in which the individual is a pointless being without any singular meaning. In essence, it is a world in which the individual has been crushed under the weight and enormity of life itself. The narrative of the poem describes a modern variation of the human race that can no longer be reduced to single individuals; it is, rather, an “unintelligible multitude” that is, at best, less a body of human beings than a statistical anomaly (Auden, 13). Their world is one defined by the absence of personal meaning, and they have become so degraded that they have taken to silently occupying their space as a “million eyes, a million boots in line, / [w]ithout expression, waiting for a sign,” seeking not for personal revelations but for any sign of authority (14-15).
It is a form of life far removed from the vibrance and singular personal experience that defines the classical imagery of The Iliad, which Auden references in his description of Hephaestus’s creation of Achilles’ shield. The world that Thetis inhabits is one that stands in sharp contrast to Auden’s modern environment, being defined in Auden’s verse by the sheer brilliance of its construction, one in which “vines and olive trees” and “[m]arble well-governed cities” are prominent features (2-3). As Thetis watches Hephaestus fashion her son’s shield, she imagines futilely that the imagery he crafts upon it will reflect her world’s magnificence, its “ritual pieties, / [w]hite flower- garlanded heifers,” and “[l]ibation and sacrifice” – for her, unlike the masses of modern
life, there is no question as to life’s hope and inherent worth (Auden, 24-26). Thetis’s world is the antithesis of the cruel, impersonal world that Auden describes. Robert Pack explores this in his article “The Idea in the Mirror: Reflections on the Consciousness of Consciousness,” stating that Auden uses the Homeric, mythical vision of life to provide a sharp contrast with the mundane, scientific reality that modern people live in, one in which the individual cannot appeal to personal or social meaning (61).
Rendered against the fantastic imagery of Homer, the meaninglessness of that modern life is made all the more stark and unmerciful. Such as in Homer’s epic, Auden’s poem also alludes to brutal fits of warfare and mindless slaughter resulting from the stagnant torpor of modern life, which he equates with his version of the shield of Achilles. In the modern world Auden depicts in the poem, the masses march blindly to conflict, being roused by ethereal voices of authority to take up any number of meaningless, supposedly just causes. In the words of Auden,
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief (19-21).
They do not question the bizarre situation that compels them to fight, and thus they willfully partake in militaristic actions against whatever other masses they are exhorted to destroy. As such, their world is propagated with horrifying events resulting from their acts and those of their enemies, such as the binding of “three pale figures … [t]o three posts driven upright in the ground,” an event that Auden describes in rather Biblical imagery (36-37). These occurrences do not trouble the masses, however; rather, they are simply taken as reality. This mindless acceptance is hardly surprising, given the futility and hopelessness of the world they exist in. Humanity in Auden’s modern world has actually ceased to be, as life has left them stunted; as the poem mentions, they “lost their pride /And died as [individuals] before their bodies died” (43-44).
The stagnation of their life has destroyed them, and it is that stagnation that Auden so potently equates with the shield Hephaestus fashions for Achilles. As the article “Hephaestus’ World: The Shield” by Eva Brann notes, the desolation of Hephaestus’s shield is thoroughly modern in its imagery (42). Unlike the shield constructed in the Iliad, which is defined by its beauty and wonder, the eponymous shield of the poem is adorned with cruel, unbroken expanses of nothingness, featuring only an “artificial wilderness / [a]nd a sky like lead” (Auden 7-8). The base monotony of the shield is unrelieved by expanses of Thetis’s lush greenery and seas; indeed, its only truly distinguishing feature is the harsh horizon between land and sky, a line which is, according to the article “The Poet and the Postwar City,” largely meaningless in the “irrational wildernesses of metallic artifice (Pearsall). Like modern life, the shield is stagnant, deadened, and featureless; it is cruel in its ambiguity and lack of meaning, and that absence of hope is the very essence that drives the people of Auden’s poem to commit acts of horror in the hope of pleasing ethereal authorities.
At the heart of Auden’s poem is a critique of the social realities that generate people willing to engage in such bloodshed, and Auden makes magnificent use of Thetis’s harsh realization to illustrate the unanticipated consequences arising from false and immoral values. The unbridled cruelty and horror of the modern world Auden describes is best detailed in a passage from the poem about an unnamed boy’s perception of reality:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept (56-59).
The boy, like most others of his world, lives in an atmosphere that is beyond hellish; it is illogical and viciously arbitrary. Auden’s modern world has not only anaesthetized its inhabitants on an individualistic and creative scale, but it has also destroyed any moral sensation that might have stayed their hand from committing acts of atrocity.
Without the barest perception of a world that might abhor strife and violence, humanity has become simply unable to conceive of a reason not to propagate both. When the masses of Auden’s world seek to please ethereal voices of authority, they do so likely hoping that they will find some sense of meaning. Because of their conditioning, however, although they do not aspire to become murderers, they become so nonetheless.
Their harsh epiphany is echoed by Thetis, who finds that the shield she has so desperately sought in order to protect her son is adorned not with images of beauty but of meaningless monotony. Like the inhabitants of Auden’s modern world, Thetis is a product of her environment, which, although quite different from that of the harsh, impersonal modern masses is just as misleading and deadening. Her world is that of classical Homeric virtue and beauty – great cities of wonders, religious rites that pervade life and grant it meaning, and an individualistic need for glory. That glistening fantasy obscures hard social realities, however; it does not show the privations of the poor or the dying wounded of the battlefield, choosing instead to celebrate pleasant imagery such as “athletes at their games” and “[m]en and women in a dance” (Auden 46-47).
That world shapes her entire being, and as John Lucas comments in his essay “Auden’s politics: power, authority, and the individual,” what Thetis truly wishes is that Hephaestus will honour her distorted, “heroic” view of reality (162). What she finds in his shield, however, is a symbol of the futility of her son’s life, of the hopeless future of “[i]ron-hearted man-slaying Achilles / [w]ho would not live long” (Auden, 66-67). The shield’s barren visage reminds her of that stark truth, which is, in its inevitability and hopelessness, quite akin to the desolation of the hideous world Auden describes. Her perception, like that of the anaesthetized masses, is ultimately proven misguided, and it leads to consequences that will define not only her life but that of her son’s.
Such realizations lie at the centre of “The Shield of Achilles,” Auden’s harsh the juxtaposition of classical vitality and wonder and the hopelessness, warfare, and cruel social realities of modern life. In Hephaestus’s shield, Auden depicts lives irreparably damaged by an absence of meaning, and ultimately driven to violence in the vain hope of achieving it. The cruel logic that runs throughout the poem is that of modern life, of wars motivated by the thinnest of justifications and lives defined not by their expression but by their lack thereof. In many ways, the poem is the realization of Auden’s hell and humanity’s reality, and its relevance has only deepened as the very fabric of life becomes continually more absurd. By contrasting the quiet horror of existence and warfare with the splendour and beauty of Thetis’s hopes for Hephaestus’s creation, Auden makes a damning observation of the darker aspects of an impersonal, amoral modern world. For Auden, dispirited by World War II and the loss of any remaining innocence he might have had about the motivations of humanity, “The Shield of Achilles” was not only a magnificent artistic achievement but the startling articulation of a hope dispelled. If Thetis is left in anguished realization at the end of the poem, so too is the reader.