The Shield of Achilles

by W. H. Auden
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Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

In W. H. Auden’s poem "The Shield of Achilles," the poet contrasts the making of Achilles’s shield during the Trojan War with prophetic visions of the breakdown of contemporary postwar society. Auden wrote this poem in 1952, shortly after World War II and in the midst of the paranoia of the Cold War era. Stanza by stanza, the poem goes back and forth in time between the creation of the shield and dark visions of the modern world.

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In the first stanza, an unnamed woman looks over the shoulder of the maker of the shield. The last stanza identifies this woman as Thetis, the mother of Achilles. According to Greek mythology, Thetis was a sea goddess who married the Greek king and hero Peleus. During the Trojan War, she went to Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, and asked him to make armor, including a shield, that would protect her son in battle. In the poem, Thetis watches Hephaestus work. She expects to see typical scenes of ancient Greece such as olive trees, vineyards, the marble buildings of Greek cities, and ships plying the seas. However, instead she sees upon the shield "An artificial wilderness / And a sky like lead."

The second and third stanzas give more details of this strange landscape of the future that Thetis sees. It is a bare brown plain with no foliage, not even a single blade of grass. There are no human dwellings; there is no furniture or food. The only thing visible is a vast army that is “unintelligible,” for she cannot understand what they are saying. Boots on and ready to march, they stand without expression and wait for a signal. A voice speaks out of the air. This may indicate some sort of loudspeaker. In dry, level tones, the voice provides statistics that justify the cause for which the readied army will fight. Laden with belief, they march forth to battle in dusty columns, but there they find only grief.

In the fourth stanza, the poet shifts back to Thetis as she looks over the shoulder of Hephaestus, who continues to forge the shield of her son. She hopes to see religious symbols such as ritual prayers, cows draped in garlands of white flowers, and offerings to the gods. Instead of an altar and other religious images, she observes something quite different.

The fifth and sixth stanzas describe the second vision of the contemporary world glimpsed by Thetis. This time she sees an area bounded by barbed wire that encloses officials and sentries. A crowd of civilians watch from outside the barbed wire as guards lead three people to posts driven into the ground and bind them there. These people bound to the posts—and by implication the spectators, too—have lost their freedom and are now helpless, their destinies "in the hands of others." They have lost the pride of life that freedom gives, and so their spirits have died even before their bodies are killed.

The seventh stanza goes back to Thetis as she looks over the blacksmith's shoulder at the carvings on the shield. This time she hopes to see cultural scenes, such as athletes competing in physical contests and dancers moving to music. Instead, she sees a field full of weeds.

The eighth stanza provides details of this third vision. A lonely poverty-stricken young boy, a "ragged urchin," loiters in this field. He throws a stone at a bird but misses. This boy is used to a world in which girls are raped, boys stab each other with knives, everyone lies, and people do not sympathize with each other.

In the ninth stanza Hephaestus, having finished his work, walks away. Thetis is dismayed at what he has created to supposedly protect her son, “Iron-hearted, man-slaying Achilles / Who would not live long.”

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Themes