How does the poem "The Shield of Achilles" contrast the Ancient and the Modern?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Auden takes the fundamental polarities found in Homer and applies them to the modern setting.  The construction of the shield is meant to be a very stoic and powerful image in the Ancient world.  When Thetis commissions Hephaestus to make the shield, it is a moment that she believes will represent the glory of war.  This represents the Classical view of war.  The demonstration of arete, glory on the battlefield, and young men valiantly sacrificing themselves for the good of something more noble and elevated.  Yet, the picture that Hephaestus renders on the shield is representative of the modern reality of war.  There is hopelessness, images of a distorted world, a rendering of plundering, rape, and violence present.  It is this vision that Hephaestus creates that embodies the modern reality of war.  Auden is able to capture this play between the ancient and modern in the construction of the shield.  The reality is that Thetis' hopes represents the ancient and the shield's vision is the modern.  Once Hephaestus leaves, the battle is suspended in terms of which vision will become accurate.  In the end, Auden rightly draws out that with Achilles' death, the barren depictions of the shield in terms of waht war's reality is turns out to be more accurate.  It is here where Auden's Modernism is present in a Classical context.

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