“The Shield of Achilles” comes from W.H. Auden’s collection of poems entitled The Shield of Achilles which was first published in 1955. It is said to be “an indictment of dehumanizing trends in contemporary society” (Summers). There are two different perspectives on this poem. There is Thetis’ perspective on the poem in which she envisions the shield to illustrate peace, but instead she realizes that Hephaestos is illustrating the misery and devastation of war. And then there is Auden’s actual take on the poem where he emphasizes the differences between the heroic past and the non heroic present. Unhappy with the totalitarian ways of the modern world, Auden interprets the images on the shield to highlight the negatives that this totalitarian state has on the individual. Looking more closely at Auden’s perspective, he emphasizes the reality of life, implying that it is not all peace and happiness like Homer portrays it to be in the Illiad. He thinks that Homer’s idea of having peace even amidst war is not valid and not true to how the world is today.
Looking further into the poem, it is important to notice the numerical symbolism. There are nine stanzas in the poem which easily compare to the nine circles of Achilles’ shield. The parallelism of the number of lines in stanzas 1, 4, 7 and 9 is also evident. There are eight lines per stanza and these stanzas are mainly set in ancient Greece. The second and fourth lines rhyme as do the sixth and the eighth. Auden refers to Achilles’ mother Thetis as “she” in stanzas 1, 4, and 7. Stanzas 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 are seven line iambic pentameter contrasts to the shield of Achilles and Homer’s ideas.
The olive tree mentioned in Line 2 is used as a symbol of peace as in most cases. In Lines 5-8 he says,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
The word “artificial” is used here in an interesting way. This “artificial wilderness” implies that this life that is totally at peace is superficial and that it is based on the principles of nothing at all. Being that lead is not actually a metal, not only does “artificial” give a contrast between Achilles’ shield and the modern world but it also is a transition into the next two stanzas. The next two stanzas describe warfare in society during that time period. Auden’s tone in these two stanzas is very dark and gloomy. He describes a group of soldiers lined up waiting for a signal from their commander. In Line 13 he describes them as “an unintelligible multitude,” downplaying the ability to think for themselves. Later on in Line 19, he says “no one was cheered and nothing was discussed,” which directly contrasts with Homer and his description of Achilles being praised for his time at war.
Stanzas 5 and 6 go into detail about a concentration camp and the reader is introduced to actual death (Line 37,38 and 45). The three bodies are placed upon stakes and are killed. This scene is, in a way, a more brutal picture of the crucifixion of Christ. Here, Auden points out the modern society’s loss of religious certainty, contrasting it with the liberation of mankind. Even though Auden has “a prophetic vision, that vision is a nightmare” (Harpers Magazine). In these stanzas, the enslavement of humans and the individual is referred to when he says “barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot” (Line 31). Under totalitarian forces, Auden claims that the men that died, “died as men before their bodies died,” losing their pride and their dignity (Lines 43 and 44). A minor detail that seems to stand out is the fact that none of the “characters” actually speak in this poem. Auden says in Line 35 and 36 that “a crowd of decent ordinary folk/watched from without and neither moved nor spoke…”
In stanza 7, again there is a direct contrast between life and death which transitions into stanza 8. In stanza 8, there is an introduction to bird imagery. Birds represent the human soul because they are able to exist here on Earth as well as fly to the heavens. However, Auden mentions that this bird is a “ragged urchin” (Line 53) suggesting that is an evil soul. This leads into the next couple of lines the raping of the girls and the killing of the boys. Auden points out that people tap into an animal instinct where there is violence and lack of humanity. In the very last stanza, Thetis finally realizes that life is not all peace and joy and she draws the conclusion that the images on the shield are a prediction to the death of her son.
Auden, W.H. 24 March 2011 <http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/99/jrieffel/poetry/auden/achilles.html>.
"Harpers Magazine." 24 January 2010. 24 March 2011 <http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/01/hbc-90006423>.
Summers, Claude J. "The Journal of English and Germanic Philology." "Or One Could Weep because Another Wept": The Counterplot of Auden's "The Shield of Achilles" (1984): 214.