What does the Shield of Achilles' central allusion reveal about the relation of modern poet to literary tradition?

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MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central allusion of the poem is to a passage in Homer's Iliad, which describes the making of the beautiful pastoral scenes on Achilles' shield. However, in a series of contrasting stanzas, the speaker reveals his perception of the modern world: a bleak, military-ruled, violent, sterile landscape filled with dehumanized people.This is juxtaposed with what Achilles' mother Thetis expects to see (rich with imagery): “untamed seas,” “ritual pieties,” “Libation and sacrifice,” and “flickering forge-light.”

The modern figures in “The Shield of Achilles” are faceless and voiceless. They are not individuals, but rather packs or multitudes, and they have no ideas of their own; they wait for orders and follow them, without thinking or arguing, reduced to nothing but “a million eyes, a million boots.” The only person who is seen individually in the modern sections of the poem is the “ragged urchin,” who is not a part of a multitude but completely alone. He has nothing particular to do, and no one to wonder where he is; seeing a bird, a thing of beauty in a desolate landscape, his first impulse is to throw a stone at it. This is what the modern world has created: a child who has never known love, who has no reason to expect loyalty or compassion. He is the product of Thetis, who even as she watches the creation of a weapon expects to see images of beauty and peace.

In the same way, the modern poet is a product of the classical tradition. Where Homer wrote flowing scenes of grandeur and romanticized war, Auden exposes the modern writer's knowledge of life and warfare after World War I. His experiences of those battles led him to rewrite the Greek depiction of war.